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Men’s Basketball: Ohio State looking to prove everyone wrong in Holtmann’s inaugural campaign

Ohio State freshman forward Kyle Young (25), freshman forward Kaleb Wesson (34) and junior guard C.J. Jackson (3) defend Wooster forward Alex Baptiste on his drive to the net in an exhibition game on Nov. 5, 2017 at the Schottenstein Center. Credit: Jacob Myers | Managing Editor for Content

Pages of predictions for Ohio State’s season line the walls of assistant coach Ryan Pedon’s office.

Those pages outline another rough campaign looming for the Buckeyes in Chris Holtmann’s first season at the helm despite the new coaching staff and trio of talented freshmen — four-star forwards Kaleb Wesson and Kyle Young and three-star forward Musa Jallow — joining Ohio State.

The shake-ups are not enough to make people forget the worst season under former head coach Thad Matta, in which the Buckeyes finished 17-15 (7-11 Big Ten).

“I think you only have to open a college basketball preseason magazine and read where we’re picked. 12, 13, 14, 11 [in the Big Ten],” Holtmann told The Lantern in October. “It’s all over, but it’s near the bottom.”

Rather than ignore the predictions of a down year for Ohio State, the players and coaches are embracing the underdog mentality.

“I think it’s hard to not be aware of [the predictions],” sophomore center Micah Potter said Wednesday. “But at the same time, you know we use it a little bit as motivation. Coach brings that up a little bit saying, ‘Hey, look guys. You know these teams are saying this is the time to get Ohio State.’ And this just kind of adds fuel to the fire.”

But are the predictions wrong? Will the Buckeyes really surprise people and have a standout season?

Perhaps they will. Perhaps won’t. Holtmann admitted Wednesday that the Buckeyes are “in the process of rebuilding our roster.”

Ohio State has plenty of depth at forward with redshirt junior Keita Bates-Diop and senior Jae’Sean Tate returning to the Buckeyes’ starting lineup. In the Buckeyes’ exhibition game, the pair combined for 27 points and went 9-for-15 from the field.

After missing the majority of last season with a stress fracture in his left leg, Bates-Diop shook off the rest and led the team with 17 points and nine rebounds. Returning for a healthy 2017-18 season, after receiving a medical redshirt, he could help provide the Buckeyes with a steady presence in the post while he mans the power forward position.

Tate, the team’s leading scorer from a season ago, should once again be expected to be one of the Buckeyes’ offensive leaders.

Holtmann and his staff will likely lean heavily on those two players. The Buckeyes will enter the season as a young, inexperienced team that lost three of its top four scorers from last season.

Knowing that, Holtmann told The Lantern that Tate and Bates-Diop are the only known starters heading into the season.

“After that, I’m still trying to figure out where to go from there,” Holtmann said. “I think we have multiple guys that can play and I think we’ll have a fairly fluid starting lineup throughout the year. That happens when you have eight to 10 guys that can potentially all start a game for you, or you have an injury or two.”

Tate in particular could be relied upon more heavily than most other players due to the team’s lack of depth at point guard. The only natural point guard on the roster is junior C.J. Jackson, and the remainder of the guards on scholarship are shooting guards. Holtmann said Tate was a player who could be asked to provide Ohio State with another option at the one. Graduate transfer Andrew Dakich was another player listed as someone who will be asked to man the point for the Buckeyes.

Jackson did not have a strong showing in the exhibition game against Wooster. He finished 1-for-11 — 0-for-6 from 3-point range — and only had four assists. Holtmann said Jackson has good feel for the position and will enter the year as the likely starter at the position, but that he will need to work on keeping his emotions in check during the game.

Guard is the thinnest position for Ohio State, but the rest of the team’s depth will come down to how well the trio of exciting freshmen perform.

Freshmen Kaleb Wesson, Kyle Young and Musa Jallow will all be counted on to play meaningful minutes for the Buckeyes, Holtmann said, even if they might not initially be counted on as starters. Young and Jallow will both provide the Buckeyes with versatile players capable of playing at both the forward and guard positions, though both are more natural forwards.

Wesson, on the other hand, could quickly emerge as a candidate for starting minutes. The highest-rated commit in Ohio State’s 2017 class is a natural scorer and will compete with Potter at the center position. Against Wooster, Wesson was one of the more electrifying players for Ohio State, posting 16 points (5-for-8 from the field) and seven rebounds. Though he provided the Buckeyes with a glimpse of the bright future that could be in store for the freshman forward, he also demonstrated some struggles defensively and fouled out.

There are several question marks pertaining to depth and expected performance. The uncertainty surrounding the team does not bode well for a team hoping to surprise some people. With a tough schedule facing No. 9 North Carolina, No. 18 Gonzaga and potentially No. 8 Florida, this young team could struggle against a lineup of high-quality opponents.

With a promising young group of players and some returning core players from last year, Ohio State seems to be in a position to finish with a better record than last season, but an NIT appearance is more likely than a surprise NCAA Tournament bid.

Having waited since June to see what the team will look like in the start of the Holtmann era, the Buckeyes are eager to get their first chance to show if they can prove any of the early predictions wrong and put together a strong season at 7 p.m. Friday at the Schottenstein Center.

“Obviously there’s a lot of anticipation for this game. The new staff and pretty much new team,” Potter said. “It was good to be able to get out there and play hard and just see where we are. Obviously, Wooster is not the level of competition we’re going to be playing moving forward. But it was good to see us gel a little bit and see us make the little mistakes that we can fix very easily.”

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