It’s never too early to look ahead to next season. Over the coming weeks, we will examine what comes next for each team in the Power 5 conferences and also those outside the Power 5 who could make noise on the national stage. Today: the Ohio State Buckeyes.
You couldn't quite call D'Angelo Russell underrated. It's not like he was some overlooked, underrecruited Trey Burke-type story. After all, Russell was a five-star McDonald's All-American, the top shooting guard in his class and the totem of Thad Matta's strong 2014 haul. ESPN Recruiting Nation ranked him No. 13 overall in that class last summer, and our scouts, who praised him as a "sweet-shooting lefty" with great ballhandling and passing skills and a "high level" feel for the game -- were more than familiar with his strengths.
In other words, the expectations were high. Russell exceeded them. By the time his lone college hoops season was over, OSU's bonafide star was a consensus first-team All-American and top-five Wooden Award finalist who averaged 19.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 1.6 steals, shot 48 percent from inside the arc and 41 percent beyond it, used 30.2 percent of Ohio State's possessions and led the nation in VPG (vines per game).
In retrospect, this makes for a fun thought experiment: What if, in October 2014, you had known Russell would be as good as he was? What if you had known he was one of the purest, most unstoppable all-around guards in years? What if you had known he would join OSU's nice collection of talented youngsters and experienced vets on a team coached by the consistently excellent Thad Matta? Maybe you would have penciled OSU in for a Final Four trip. Maybe not. But you'd have thought that team would at least contend for the Big Ten title, right?
Even with the gift of partial foresight, you would have been wrong.
That's what was so weird about the Buckeyes' 2014-15 season. Even with Russell flashing white-hot, pace-and-space, ball-screen genius on a nightly basis, and even with seniors such as Sam Thompson, Shannon Scott and Temple graduate transfer Anthony Lee -- all quality defenders at various points in their careers -- as ostensible anchors, the Buckeyes never quite got there.
They weren't bad, of course. The potential was always obvious, and the idea of Russell in the tournament was frightening.
But by the time the Big Ten season ended, Ohio State was 11-7 in conference, fifth in the Big Ten in points per trip and fourth in per-trip defense. They were a double-digit tourney seed. They lost by 15 to No. 2 Arizona in the round of 32. Just like that, it was over.
Brilliant as Russell was, the end product was weirdly unsatisfying. Now what?
What the immediate future holds: The 2014-15 season offered two unexpected turns: First that Russell was so good, and later, that his team wasn't better. It's hard to imagine 2015-16 matching those surprises, mostly because it's so hard to be surprised about a team you know so little about.
Put more simply, Ohio State has a lot of new dudes. Russell is off to June's NBA draft (where he has a legitimate chance of being the best pro among a group that includes Jahlil Okafor and Karl-Anthony Towns). All four remaining members of Matta's 2011 class -- Scott, Thompson, forward Amir Williams (who never quite matched his hype as an incoming freshman in 2011) and career reserve Trey McDonald -- have graduated. Returners include lights-out wing shooter Marc Loving and three talented, intriguing sophomores (Jae'Sean Tate, Keita Bates-Diop and Kam Williams) who were nonetheless mere role players a season ago. As usual, Matta has a stocked, five-player class of incomers, all of whom rate as four-star players, none of whom is obviously a star and most of whom will be expected to contribute immediately. How good are Austin Grandstaff, Daniel Giddens, A.J. Harris and Mickey Mitchell? How good is Virginia Tech transfer Trevor Thompson, who scored just five points in Blacksburg as a freshman in 2013-14, but whose promise earned him interest from a swath of elite programs before he settled on OSU?
Most of all: How good is JaQuan Lyle? The former Oregon signee chose Ohio State as his fallback plan after a credit issue kept him from enrolling last year. Is he an immediate star? A project with a bright future? A four-year rotation guy?
Who knows? Both the individual pieces and how they mesh remain mostly mysteries at Ohio State. There is a wide range of talent at Matta's disposal, but his team is also unusually young.
Any outcome seems reasonable, from Big Ten title contention to a foundational transition to the future.
It is exactly that variability that makes surprises such as 2014-15 -- both for the better and the worse -- less likely in the year to come. It's hard to be surprised when you have nothing in mind going in.