Before I list these, I want it to be known I don't necessarily think next year will be a bounce back season for the program. And even as a huge Thad fan, I would have no issue with him being fired if it is not. But it is just exhausting being an OSU basketball optimist. Damn near every article on the team is followed with a predictable barrage of negative comments. It could be general ('Matta sucks' , 'they have no heart') or more specific ('free throw shooting sucks'). My favorite is when the comments are in ALL CAPS for emphasis. Or those who comment yet watch 2-3 games a year or admittedly haven't watched a game in years.
And I am not saying that these comments aren't warranted. The program is in the worst shape it has been under Matta. There is no doubt about that. But I am not writing off next season already like so many fans seem to be. I would not put money on a Top 5 Big Ten finish and a top 6 seed in the NCAA tourney, but I certainly do not think it is out of the realm of possibility. Here is why:
1. Team Leadership- Certainly not predicting it will be great next season, but it has to be better than the last two seasons, right? Two years ago we had zero seniors. Last year we had Marc Loving, which may be worse than zero. Next season we will have our most consistent player (Tate) and of our hardest workers in the off-season/on the practice court (Kam Williams) as seniors.
2. Team Chemistry- Another area that was seemingly terrible the past couple of seasons. Next season, we will have two sets of former HS teammates being re-united: Beverly-Funderburk and Wesson-Wesson. That can't hurt.
3. Don't Take Tate for Granted- I think because Ja'Sean has been on mediocre and bad teams, most fans focus on his shortcomings, namely his outside shooting. It is similar to the Aaron Craft backlash his senior year. When he was on championship teams his first 3 years, he could do no wrong. But when he was a senior on a mediocre team, everyone wanted him to be a great shooter. Guess what? He isn't a good shooter today and he has played pro basketball for 3 years. And Tate isn't a good shooter either. That isn't lack of player development. Some guys shots are broke and can't be fixed. But he averaged 14 pts and 7 rebs and shot 55% from the field last year. I don't know how he rebounds so well and scores consistently in the paint against taller, more athletic players, but he does. And we should be grateful we have him for one more year. Bonus: he is actually 100% healthy for once going into this off -season.
4. Our Most Versatile Player is Back- I am not going to hype KBD as the next David Lighty. Or get into a debate on how many wins he is worth. But he does quite a few things pretty well and has a ridiculous wingspan for a SF. He has his shortcomings (shoots off balance too much, needs to play more aggressively, etc.). But if he can stay healthy and improve in those areas a little bit, I truly believe he could be an All Big 10 player.
5. The SF-PF Spots Should be Loaded- Tate and KBD are arguably our two best players. Andre Wesson got better and better as the year went on and is already considered one of the hardest workers on the team. Funderburk is the wild card. Who knows what we get out of him? But having a 6'9" athletic kid to bring off the bench sounds promising to me.
6. Kam Back to the Old Kam- With KBD back and the emergence of CJ Jackson, there seems to be a strong possibility Kam comes off the bench again. Williams went from a 6th man of the Year candidate in the BIG as a Soph to one of the worst starting guards in the league as a Jr. He just isn't a 30 plus minute starter. I am not saying he will definitely play at his soph level next year. But I firmly believe this team is better off with Kam playing 15-25 mins off the bench.
7. Ball Handlers- We will have two true PGs (Jackson and Beverly) on the roster for the first time in 4 years. I have no idea if Braxton will be a factor next year, but at the very least he is a good insurance policy. And CJ was the most improved player on the team from November to March. For the season he averaged 5.6 pts a game and shot 32% on threes, but the last 10 games he averaged 9.5 pts a game and shot 46% on threes.
8. Can Lyle Finally Break Out?- This is my least confident point, hence the question mark. It is his 3rd season, but this could be the first one he consistently plays off the ball consistently. Maybe because Matta never had confidence in AJ Harris as a Freshman and didn't have it in CJ until February, but he finally started playing Lyle off the ball. Unfortunately, at that point in the season, Jaquan had family issues and ankle and knee injuries that limited his minutes and effectiveness. And frankly, this team is too damn slow when he is running the pg spot for 30-35 mins a game.
9. Skill at Center- I am not saying Kaleb Wesson is the next Jared Sullinger or even Kennedy Meeks. But I have seen this kid play in person a few times. He has big time skills. His shooting stroke is stellar (made 23-24 FTs in a game this year), his footwork and post moves are solid, and he is an excellent passer for a big man. The question marks of his foot speed and athleticism (or lack there of) are real. But I believe his skill level will make up for some of what's lacking in the athleticism department.
10. The State of the Big 10- First of all, I don't think the BIG was the hot pile of garbage most thought it was. Despite only one top 4 seed, 3 teams made the Sweet 16 and two of those were 1 pt away from the Elite 8 (Wisky and Mich). And despite our unacceptable 7-11 record and loss to Rutgers, we beat Wisky and Mich and lost to Purdue by a point. I think the Buckeyes' poor talent level is a little exaggerated. And although Sparty looks to be a national title contender with Bridges back, does anyone else in the conference really scare you next year? Melo Trimble and OG Anunoby both signed with agents. 7 other non-Buckeyes declared early for the draft without signing w/ an agent. You gotta think at least couple of those will bolt. Minnesota is one of the popular picks to be at the top of the league (along with Sparty). This is the same team that we beat by 6 pts at home and nearly erased an 18 pt deficit on the road. If Minnesota can be in the top 5 of the conference, why can't we?