COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Ohio State provided a tantalizing look of what might be when the Buckeyes beat three higher-seeded teams in the Big Ten Tournament before losing to top-seeded and eventual champion Purdue in a semifinal.
Up until then, it had been a season to forget for the Buckeyes, particularly during a long, frustrating stretch of January and February when they lost 14 of 15 conference games.
Ohio State finished 16-19 (5-15 Big Ten). It was the first season under .500 in 19 years and the first time the Buckeyes missed the NCAA Tournament in six years. Managing it was a challenge for coach Chris Holtmann, who had led the Buckeyes to 20-win seasons in each of his first five years in Columbus.
Holtmann is hoping a group of new players will coalesce around fourth-year center Zed Key and a trio of second-year guards — Bruce Thornton, Roddy Gayle Jr. and Felix Okpara — who began to flash their potential in the second half of last season.
Key was averaging 10.8 points per game and 7.5 rebounds until he injured a shoulder in a collision with Purdue big man Zach Edey. Key eventually had season-ending surgery.
Thornton returns to run the point for the Buckeyes. Last season he averaged 10.6 points and 2.6 assists while hitting 37% of his 3-pointers. Gayle is expected to start at the other guard spot after beginning to play well late in the season. The other “super soph,” Okpara, started the final nine games.
“It’s going to take the small things,” Thornton said. “Last year felt like a roller coaster. I'll still have that in the back of my mind. ... That's something I don't want to go through no more.”
Holtmann said the Buckeyes' defense has been a weakness, and it's getting special attention during this preseason.
“I think this group has the ability to be a much-improved defensive team," Holtmann said. “But we’ve got to do it, and we’ve got to prove it. Up to this point, we’ve had two years of really not good enough performance on that end. And last year we just weren't efficient on either end in Big Ten play. So that’s certainly been a point of emphasis.”
Holtmann's most significant addition via the transfer portal was Jamison Battle, a big man whom the Buckeyes saw plenty of in the last two years when he played at Minnesota. He spent two years at George Washington before that. In the four seasons combined, the 6-foot-7, 225-pound forward averaged 14.4 points per game.
Battle said he recognizes a fifth year of eligibility as a “luxury.”
“I didn’t really want to take the fifth year, but when I read up on all my options, talked to my family, talked to people close to me, I figured why not come back to college and hopefully experience the NCAA Tournament?” he said. “I think that’s the biggest thing, in March when I was sitting there thinking about coming back to play.”
Said Holtmann: “He’s a really proven, gifted scorer, and that’s what we’ve seen from him so far in the preseason. I think he can score the ball, and we needed that with the loss of some of our wings. We knew we needed some scoring."
COMINGS AND GOINGS
The Buckeyes lost their two top scorers from last season, Brice Sensabaugh and Justice Sueing. Besides Battle and Baylor transfer Dale Bonner, Holtmann added a highly touted class of freshmen, including Scotty Middleton, Taison Chatman, Devin Royal and Austin Parks.
The Buckeyes open Nov. 6 at home against Oakland before hosting No. 15 Texas A&M on Nov. 10. Other nonconference opponents of note include No. 24 Alabama in the Emerald Coast Classic Tournament in Florida and UCLA in the CBS Sports Classic in Atlanta on Dec. 16. They'll play Big Ten games against Minnesota on Dec. 3 and at Penn State on Dec. 9.
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