Jake Diebler Ensures A Core to Build Around for 2024-25 With Two Retentions, One Addition in 22-Hour Span

By Andy Anders on April 3, 2024 at 8:35 am
Jake Diebler

Belief, momentum, the connectedness a shared hardship brings, those things can only carry a program so far. Jake Diebler experienced all three of those edges in his first 11 games after taking over as Ohio State basketball head coach.

That’s not to say he can’t build long-term success for the Buckeyes. Incoming athletic director Ross Bjork wouldn’t have hired him over the selection of outside candidates available if he didn’t believe that to be the case.

But it’s irrefutably something the first-year head coach still needs to prove. 

Diebler delivered his first evidence of long-term viability in a 22-hour stretch from 8:16 p.m. on Monday to 6:02 p.m. on Tuesday, setting himself up for his first season with two key roster retentions and an equally key addition from the transfer portal.

Keeping the best chess pieces already at his disposal was king within Diebler's roster-building strategy entering the offseason.

"Retention is critical," Diebler said. "In an overview of that (looking at next year's team), it's really important. Roster management, it's a completely different landscape right now. But for us, retentions is going to be important in that, certainly.

After losing a major bench piece in Scotty Middleton and a less-major bench piece in Bowen Hardman to the transfer portal, Diebler received welcome news when Felix Okpara announced his return to Columbus for his junior season.

There were rumors that the team’s starting center may head elsewhere for his third collegiate campaign. Such a move would have cost the Buckeyes the Big Ten’s No. 2 shot-blocker from the 2023-24 campaign, with Okpara collecting 2.4 swats per game. It would have demanded a new starting center from the portal as rising sophomore Austin Parks doesn’t appear ready to start.

Now Ohio State can focus its resources elsewhere in the transfer portal and build its defense around a formidable interior led by Okpara. Adding another big for depth purposes certainly wouldn’t hurt, though.

Perhaps no player was more important for Diebler to retain than star point guard Bruce Thornton. While Okpara paced the Buckeyes in blocks and rebounds this past season, Thornton led the way in scoring and passing with 15.7 points and 4.8 assists per game.

He’s the leader of Ohio State’s offense in more ways than being its point guard. Thornton was named a team captain midway through his freshman season, a title he retained through his sophomore year.

That’s why it was so essential to see him announce he’d stick with the Buckeyes on Tuesday afternoon. 

Few are as self-assured or as competitive as Thornton, who has said he feels like one of the best guards in the Big Ten and even the country on multiple occasions. He set the expectation before the season that his squad wanted to win a conference title.

Obviously, that didn’t pan out, but with his return Ohio State has thus far held onto its quartet of important junior-class players. The Buckeyes' recruiting class of 2022 – which contained three of this year’s starters in Thornton, Okpara and Roddy Gayle Jr. – ranked No. 8 nationally in the 247Sports team composite rankings.

Evan Mahaffey joined that junior group from the transfer portal last offseason and started all season at small forward for the Buckeyes. He contributed in myriad ways with 4.3 points, 4.2 rebounds, 1.7 assists, one steal and 0.7 blocks per game.

The Buckeye class behind them in 2023 also ranked eighth in the country, though it did just lose an asset in Middleton, a four-star prospect on the wing.

An asset came right back Tuesday evening, however, as Meechie Johnson announced a return to Ohio State for his final season of college basketball following two years at South Carolina.

Johnson put up a team-high 14.1 points and tacked on 2.9 assists per game for the Gamecocks in 2023-24, leading South Carolina to an NCAA Tournament berth. His efficiency from the floor has been a cause for concern in the past, but he shot a career-best 39.9% this season.

How exactly he fits into Ohio State’s backcourt with Thornton and Gayle remains to be seen, but it’s nonetheless an addition that gives the Buckeyes more scoring options and bolsters their guard depth.

There’s plenty more work to be done for Diebler this offseason. His assistant coaching staff isn’t fully formed yet. Wing scoring is needed to replace Middleton and Jamison Battle. More attrition from the current roster in the transfer portal or otherwise is possible, if not likely.

But with a 22-hour exercise, Diebler ensured that he has a core to build around for his first full year.

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