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Men’s Basketball: Ohio State faces question marks for next season with several key departures

Ohio State’s Kaleb Wesson and Andrew Dakich pressure Gonzaga’s Zach Norvell, Jr. in the first half in the second round of the NCAA Tournament West Regional on Mar. 17 in Taco Bell Arena in Boise, Idaho. Credit: Courtesy of TNS

The Ohio State men’s basketball season came to a close Saturday in heartbreaking fashion with a late comeback attempt falling short against fourth-seed Gonzaga, which won 90-84.

Though it ended short of a national championship, the season was well past anything most — including the team — expected the Buckeyes would accomplish in the first season of the Chris Holtmann era.

Now the focus turns swiftly from losing in the 2018 NCAA Tournament to returning to the Big Dance in 2019.

It will not necessarily be easy for the Buckeyes to repeat. The roster will look different next season, with forward Jae’Sean Tate and guards Kam Williams and Andrew Dakich graduating. There also is a chance breakout star redshirt junior forward Keita Bates-Diop, who was honored with the seniors after the team’s final home game, will depart early for the NBA draft after he posted eye-popping numbers in a healthy season.

Assuming Bates-Diop leaves, the starting five will return just freshman center Kaleb Wesson and junior guard C.J. Jackson. After Bates-Diop, the 2018 Big Ten Player of the Year, makes his decision, questions will emerge about who replaces the gaps left in the starting five.

At shooting guard, it seems plausible that Jackson will be asked to move from his current starting spot of point guard. In his first season as the starter at the one, Jackson showed that while capable of the position, he was often prone to turnovers and ill-advised passes that probably have him better suited to play shooting guard where his ability to effectively shoot will play better.

Whether or not Jackson moves, the second starting guard in the five will presumably come from either freshman Musa Jallow, incoming four-star recruit Luther Muhammad or a graduate transfer.

Jallow displayed defensive prowess in his first season coming off the bench — and even started at shooting guard for a couple games. What he didn’t show was the ability to be a reliable offensive presence for the team. He averaged just 2.5 points per game in his inaugural campaign, shooting 39.2 percent from the field and 25.0 percent from 3.

Similar to Jallow both in size and defensive ability, Muhammad also would enter the season expected to produce. Whether he plays in an uneven role like Jallow did in his first campaign or is viewed as a potential starter remains to be seen, but as the 77th-best prospect in the nation and the Buckeyes’ top recruit in the class, Muhammad should be expected to contribute to the team.

The one thing both Jallow and Muhammad bring to the table is size at the guard position that cannot be overcome as easily as it was in 2017-18. While the 6-foot-1 Jackson and 6-foot-2 Williams often were often unable to cover taller guards, Jallow is 6-foot-5 and Muhammad is 6-foot-4, both taller even than Tate, who started at forward for Ohio State.

As for the two potential forward spots that could be open, former four-star prospect Kyle Young will likely occupy one. While Jallow was often viewed as one of the go-to guard options early for Ohio State, Young never factored into the team’s season much, averaging just 8.6 minutes, 1.8 points and 1.6 rebounds per game.

Young came to Ohio State with Holtmann from Butler as the 80th-best recruit in the country but never had much of a chance to show his ability, largely due to Ohio State’s depth at guard. With Tate leaving and Bates-Diop potentially departing as well, Young will presumably be counted on more than sophomore forward Andre Wesson as someone to step in and fill the void offensively.

While four-star recruit Jaedon LeDee could come in and have an impact, Ohio State will retain a lot of its depth at forward, returning both Wesson brothers, sophomore center Micah Potter and Young. LeDee could force his way into more minutes, but likely will see a role similar to Young this season.

Kaleb Wesson will provide stability at center and should be expected to continue his development. He averaged 10.9 points and 4.9 rebounds per game as a freshman and should only improve in both areas — as well as defensively — while going through his second season.

It goes without saying that much of the Buckeyes’ 2018-19 success hinges on the looming decision of Bates-Diop. If he returns, Ohio State could be seen as one of the favorites to win the Big Ten. If he leaves, Ohio State will just have yet another question mark to address.

Among a recruiting class that ranks 24th in the country, several returning players who showed promise this season and the possible additions of graduate transfers, Ohio State will have the talent to return to the NCAA Tournament.

Now it is just up to Holtmann to show that in his second season as head coach, he can again capitalize on that talent and make sure it reaches its full potential.

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