State of Ohio State: Looking at Buckeye basketball

The Buckeyes lose their leader in Aaron Craft, who graduates this year.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

It has not been the best few days for the Ohio State basketball program.

It has not been the best few months, really. The Buckeyes were short on shooters this year and appear to have major holes to fill going forward. Competition — across the Big Ten and in Ohio State’s traditional recruiting areas — is very stiff and isn’t getting any softer.

The season that ended with last Thursday’s loss to Dayton would be considered disappointing, which speaks to the standard that’s been set under Thad Matta, who just completed his tenth season as head coach. Matta has taken the program to new heights and had the Buckeyes playing deep into March in each of the last three years.

Now, the Buckeyes face a situation that could see them lose their leader in Aaron Craft, their top scorer in LaQuinton Ross, another starter in Lenzelle Smith Jr. and their top shooter off the bench in Amedeo Della Valle all at once. Craft and Smith will graduate, Della Valle is headed to play professionally in Italy and Ross is expected to announce a decision on his future shortly.

There are holes to fill, and as the man who’s been at the front of pushing Ohio State higher and higher in college basketball’s food chain, Matta has to hope he has the right guys to fill them. Right now, the 2014-15 Buckeyes look like a team that won’t have much inside presence or many shooters.

LaQuinton Ross denies report he's made decision to leave OSU

As it was this season, that’s a big problem.

The Buckeyes have an experienced point guard in waiting in Shannon Scott. If Ross goes, that opens up not only another spot in the starting lineup but opens the role as go-to scorer, too. Sam Thompson has had three productive years in the program and has improved each year, but he’s never been that.

Marc Loving showed glimpses as a freshman but ended up averaging just 4.4 points per game. Big man Amir Williams averaged 7.8.

The Buckeyes will still bring back an experienced, athletic roster for next season, even if no freshmen or transfers play key roles. But if Ross goes pro, 57 percent of the scoring from an offensively-challenged team will be gone.

"You’ve got to want to be a better shooter," Matta said on his Monday evening radio show.

The challenge is out there. There are certainly minutes to be won and points that need to be scored.

The 6’8 Loving is a gifted scorer with room to improve as an all-around player, and there are signs that he will. A highly-touted freshman class is coming with DeAngelo Russell, Jae’sean Tate and Keita Bates-Diop all expected to compete for playing time. It’s unfair to expect freshmen to star right away, but it’s fair to expect these guys to help.

Amedeo Della Valle leaves OSU to play pro ball

The Buckeyes could be active in the transfer market, too. That’s never really been Matta’s style in Columbus, but help is needed. There will again be transfers of different ability and experience levels all across the country, and the Buckeyes are a visible program. It’s possible that transfers will find them, instead of the other way around. Matta and his staff will have research to do and decisions to make.

We’ll see.

As for who’s coming, point guard Kam Williams redshirted last season. The Buckeyes have two commits in the class of 2015, wing Mickey Mitchell and point guard A.J. Harris. Big man David Bell, also coming as part of the 2014 class, is expected to redshirt. Ohio’s Mr. Basketball, 2015 priority recruit Luke Kennard, picked Duke on Monday night.

Ohio State recruited him heavily, but nobody was beating Duke for Kennard. Other top Buckeye in-state targets are 2015 forward Carlton Bragg, 2016 big man Omari Spellman and 2016 wing V.J. King.

All that is a long way away. Russell could have an immediate role. Matta, presumably, will continue to search high and low for big men. Transfers and/or priority recruits of the near future could see opportunity, but it’s hard to say how all the pieces will fit or if the Buckeyes will pursue a transfer with 2014-15 eligibility.

It is clear that Ohio State goes forward with more real questions than it’s had since Jared Sullinger and Craft stepped on to campus four summers ago. It’s on the returning players to improve and seize the opportunity. It’s on Matta and the coaches to find and develop the next guys to help keep the program in its place of national prominence.