After a calamitous 16-19 season, including a 5-15 record good for 13th-place in the Big Ten standings that erased any shot at an NCAA Tournament bid, being optimistic about the future of Ohio State basketball is hard for some.
And hey, I get it. The Buckeyes floundered for the better part of two straight months, losing 14 times in 15 games in just about every way possible. The stretch gave rise to fan chatter suggesting athletic director Gene Smith should send head coach Chris Holtmann packing (or else hoping the sixth-year Buckeye head coach would take a job elsewhere).
That was never a realistic ask however as Holtmann's contract has a hefty buyout and just as importantly, even as the team took on water this season, most could see the freshmen class coming on down the stretch. And with the nation's No. 6 recruiting class featuring three top-50 recruits on the way for next fall, as hard as it is for some to accept, the best move was to keep Holtmann in place ensuring the young nucleus stays intact.
Holtmann will most likely lose Brice Sensabaugh to the NBA Draft after the freshman led the Buckeyes in scoring but the core group of fellow freshmen in Felix Okpara, Roddy Gayle and Bruce Thornton are expected to be back and they should pair nicely with incoming freshmen Taison Chatman, Devin Royal and Scotty Middleton. Center recruit Austin Parks also joins the fold albeit with less fanfare.
Veteran Zed Key is expected return, coming off season-ending shoulder surgery but when it gets down to it, the most important piece to whether or not Ohio State could return to even the top quarter of the Big Ten standings and earn a useful seed in the NCAA Tournament is Thornton.
He proved as much when the Buckeyes peeled themselves off the mat and at least went 5-3 over the last eight games after getting blown out by Purdue in late-February. Look, again I get it, winning five of eight down the stretch isn't exactly Big Freaking Deal territory when the season is already cooked but this article is probably more about my therapy than your enjoyment and over those eight games, even the staunchest hater can't argue with Thornton's impact.
And heading into next year, even as Royal, Middleton and Chatman arrive and project to play big minutes, Thornton will be the experienced point guard steering the ship. He'll be the captain and he'll have the ball in his hands more than any of his teammates.
If he can build off the last eight games of this season, that will prove crucial for the Buckeyes.
|LAST 8 G||34.6||51/102||50%||13/34||38%||3.1||3.0||1.0||16.4|
|FIRST 27 G||29.3||88/203||43%||29/78||37%||1.5||2.5||1.4||8.9|
Thornton hit a wall as the calendar flipped to 2023, reaching double figures just one time in 10 games spanning January 1 to February 2 and only four times in 15 games from the new year through February 19. Shooting a weak 38% from the floor, Thornton averaged just 7.4 points during the meaty stretch.
From there however things turned around for Thornton starting with a 19-point, zero turnover performance in a tough 75-71 home loss to Penn State. His solid night kicked off a final eight game stretch in which he shot 50% from the floor overall while hitting at least 45% of his shots in six different contests. In the first 27 games, he shot at least 45% from the floor only 12 times, connecting on 43% of his field goal attempts overall.
Thornton's increased shooting accuracy came even as he attempted more shots from three-point range - launching 4.3 per night over the final eight games while attempting a more modest 2.9 threes per outing during the first 27 contests.
The increase in three-point attempts didn't mean he simply stood around the edges of the offense either as his free throw attempts per game doubled over the final eight matchups (3.5) compared to the previous 27 games (1.5). Thornton only made 68% of those free throws down the stretch after hitting at a 73% rate in the 27 games prior.
All in, Thornton averaged 16.4 points during the eight-game burst after tallying 8.9 points per night across the first 27.
Despite looking to score more frequently during his streak, Thornton also valued the ball at a better rate as his assists (3.0 per game) and turnovers (1.0 per game) yielded a better ratio than during the first 27 contests when he averaged 2.5 assists and 1.4 turnovers. He was certainly at his best in the Big Ten Tournament in this regard as he racked up 15 assists without a turnover in the final three games.
With Thornton's late-season resume, a ton of experienced gained, and those leadership traits that helped keep the team together during a rough stretch and pushed him to captain status, his role for 2023-24 is locked in.
All in, Thornton averaged 16.4 points during the eight-game burst after tallying 8.9 points per night across the first 27 games.
Having a known floor general is always important in college hoops but maybe more so than usual entering next season considering how many other roles have to be defined. Yes, the talent looks to be there but questions such as how effective the newcomers will be and what roles they'll play don't yet have answers.
Whether Key can bounce back from surgery and provide a certain level of production at the four is also a query without a confident answer. Can Roddy Gayle build off his own late-season surge? Will Felix Okpara's offseason yield a couple go-to post moves to make him more than a defensive presence and alley-oop option? Will Holtmann look to bring in a useful transfer, potentially on the low block?
That's a lot to sort out but at least Holtmann has his man at the point as the Buckeyes look to erase the pain of last season and take the program to heights not seen in too many years.