Roddy Gayle Jr. was the top-rated commit in Ohio State's 2022 class.
Yet, coming into Saturday's win over Iowa, the freshman had yet to start a single game as a Buckeye. A spot that Chris Holtmann felt Gayle deserved against the Hawkeyes.
“He had a really good couple of days of practice,” Holtmann said Monday. “He was excited about the opportunity to start. It helped being at home, too, with him being more comfortable.”
With Sean McNeil (dental emergency) asking to come off the bench for the game, Gayle was given his first career start, something he had been striving for and preparing for all season even if he had to wait until mid-January to do so.
“I felt like I just had to stay prepared,” Gayle said. “Regardless of if (McNeil) was going to play or wasn't, I felt like I just had to be prepared for when my name was called. ... Just always be ready for when your number’s called.
“Coming into college you think you're going to have the best year, I'm gonna be a starter, I'm going to do this or that,” Gayle said. “The reality is, it starts in practice. You're going to have to grind out every practice.”
He did just that, which led to Holtmann rewarding the true freshman. A new starting lineup is nothing new for the Buckeyes. In fact, it has become quite normal for Ohio State of late. The head coach has been trying to find a way to spark his team and its offense while in the midst of a five-game losing streak. The first-time starting lineup – Bruce Thornton, Gayle, Isaac Likekele, Brice Sensabaugh and Zed Key – seemed to do the trick, at least this past weekend.
Gayle made the most of his opportunity, finishing with nine points and two rebounds while making four of seven shots during his 17 minutes. While that certainly doesn't seem like much, it's the most minutes he had played since Dec. 21 (20 minutes vs. Maine), his seven shots tied a career-high and his nine points were his most since scoring 12 against St. Francis (Dec. 3).
"It was a great feeling," Gayle said. "That kind of atmosphere that we had the other day coming off of a five-game losing streak. To have that kind of impact in the game with Sean out (of the starting lineup), I felt like I needed to step up in ways that I didn't in the previous game."
Gayle's nine points and defense played a role in Ohio State ending its five-game skid, but it was his dunk that was the most memorable play he had. While it was worth only two points, the type of momentum and energy that it brought to the team, the sidelines and the fans in the arena were worth much more than that.
“I definitely give huge props to Coach Diebler. He always tells me that if I wanna make money playing this sport, then I'm gonna have to use my athleticism to dunk the basketball,” Gayle said. “It was an amazing experience. Looking over at the bench seeing all my teammates jumping and stuff. Looking around the arena and everybody going wild. It's just those types of energy plays that our team can use once in a while, I'll be more than happy to do so.”
As the 49th-ranked prospect in the 2022 recruiting class, expectations were high for Gayle. His freshman year has been a process for the 6-foot-4, 205-pound guard as he leans on his defense while continuing to develop offensively. In 19 games this season, he's averaging 3.9 points, 1.4 rebounds and 1.1 assists while shooting 42.5% from the field and 29.2% from beyond the arc in 13.7 minutes per game.
“As a young kid, his defense has been ahead of his offense,” Holtmann said. “I think the game has been fast for him but you can see glimpses of his talent. That's what we've seen as coaches and you're saying, ‘boy, he's going to be a really good player,’ and he is, there's no question in my mind he's going to be a really good player.”
Gayle credited the player who typically starts in front of him with preparing him for his first start.
“Sean, he's a veteran and has been at this level for many years,” Gayle said of being able to learn from McNeil. “Just learning from him, honestly. I give major props to Sean because just the little stuff I can pick up off of him because he's done this for a while. I give huge props to him.”
Although Gayle's first season has been quieter than fellow freshmen Sensabaugh and Thornton, the Niagara Falls, New York native is confident he’ll be just fine, and so is his head coach.
“He's got a great family that is really supportive and understands that this is going to be a process,” Holtmann said of Gayle and his family. “I think that helps the young man. He's really close with his family. ... They know that there is a process to this and know that he's going to grow into a really good player. So I think that helps him a lot.”
After a five-game losing skid, Gayle played a significant role in getting Ohio State back in the win column in his first career start, and he says that’s all he wants to do. Regardless of how much playing time he gets, the freshman just wants to do whatever he can to help the team succeed.
“All I wanna do is win,” Gayle said. “Starter or come off the bench, I just wanna win.”