The Buckeyes made their season debut Tuesday night in an exhibition win over Northern Kentucky University, 77-67. The game, which was Thad Matta's first in Value City Arena, was not televised, so only those in attendance were able to see for themselves how Ohio State looked.
This preseason contest gave the Buckeyes a chance to try many different player combinations and get a lot of young guys some action and also gave Ohio State fans a chance to get excited for basketball season.
After last season's debacle, Ohio State fans were curious to see how the team rebounds this season. So how did the team fare?
For those who especially couldn't attend the game for themselves, here's my extensive scouting report.
Ohio State's opponent is a powerful Division II school located in Highland Heights, Kentucky. Under the guidance of first-year head coach Dave Bezold, The Norse have already played Kentucky and Cincinnati.
The Norse gave Kentucky all they could handle for nearly 33 minutes, as they trailed just 41-38 at halftime and were down by less than 10 points with just eight minutes remaining.
Kentucky was able to pull away in the game's final five minutes on their way to a 91-73 victory. The Cincinnati game, however, was not quite the same story. Being without their star player, 6-6 junior Derek Smith, Cincinnati jumped out to an early 21-3 lead and Northern Kentucky was never able to close the gap as they ended up losing 103-64.
Smith, a former star tight end in football who was high school teammates with former Kentucky quarterback Jared Lorenzen, transferred to Northern Kentucky from UK and is now focusing his time on basketball.
Ohio State left little question as to who the more talented team was Tuesday evening, but Northern Kentucky is a tremendous outside shooting team, and as most people are aware, last year that was a recipe for disaster against the Buckeyes.
The Buckeyes spent much of the first half holding leads of between five and 10 points as Je'Kel Foster made several key plays, including back-to-back steals on the defensive end that led to fast-break points.
In the first half, the Buckeyes were crisp. Other than a few breakdowns losing their man defensively, they were playing aggressive defense. They were extending beyond the perimeter and getting in the man's face.
Most of Ohio State's points were coming on individual moves, which can be a good thing or a bad thing. On the plus side, last year Ohio State wasn't able to get many one-on-one points consistently, and they especially were getting very little by way of the mid-range game.
Tuesday evening, Ivan Harris, J.J. Sullinger, and even Tony Stockman were creating mid-range shots. Stockman actually ended up with as many 2-pointers on the night as he did 3-pointers, which is something you rarely saw from him last season.
On the downside, however, Ohio State's ball movement was decent, but very few times did their ball movement translate into easy baskets. Quite often, I saw someone coming off a screen or sliding back door, and someone missed it completely.
Sullinger, especially, seems to almost refuse to make an entry pass into the post or to a cutting teammate. For the most part, however, the first half was solid.
Defensively, Foster was doing a great job of creating turnovers. Stockman played excellent defense until the last few minutes of the half where it appeared he was getting a little lazy. Harris was responsible for missing his man on more than one occasion.
The first half saw most of the time going to Stockman, Foster, Sullinger, Harris, and Dials (the starters), as well as Marinchick, Terwilliger, Butler, and Jackson-Wilson. Billings also played some from the 10-minute to the 5-minute mark.
Foster finished the first half with 13 points, and Stockman had seven points. The Buckeyes took a 10-point lead into the locker-room.
The second half showed a lot of upside and also a lot of downside. One of the plusses was the fact Ohio State used their size and athleticism to their advantage, as Terence Dials and J.J. Sullinger continued to pound the ball inside to draw fouls.
On the downside, while Sullinger got the charity stripe 20 times, he also made only 11 of those free throws. That has got to change if Ohio State is expected to win tight games this season.
Another very encouraging thing in the second half was the play of Jamar Butler. Defensively, especially, Butler was playing absolutely hounding defense. He didn't allow a single basket that I saw and was always in his man's face regardless of where he was on the court.
Foster and Billings also should be credited with strong perimeter defense. Stockman continued to play well defensively, and only a few times did he lose track of his man.
The Buckeyes played most of the second half with Butler, Foster, Stockman, Sullinger, and Dials on the floor. Butler also seemed to really start looking comfortable as the point guard.
Only once did he make a bad decision with the basketball as he tried forcing a lazy pass out on the perimeter that was nearly picked and would have been run down the court for an easy lay-up.
The one apparent weak link in this rotation seemed to be Sullinger. Every time the Buckeyes began pulling away, Sullinger gave up a 3-pointer. There were six or seven times I counted in the second half that Sullinger was responsible for missing his man and allowing an easy 3-pointer.
That's 18 to 21 points alone that one player gave up. Take away even half of those points, and Ohio State is looking at a more impressive victory over this team than Kentucky had.
The Buckeyes finished with the 10-point lead, thanks mostly to some very impressive foul shooting (sans Sullinger). Terence Dials finished the game shooting 10-of-11 from the free throw line, Foster was 6-of-6 from the line, Butler was 3-of-4, and Stockman was 2-of-2. Besides Sullinger, Ohio State was a combined 21-of-23 for an incredible 91 percent.
I can see already that free throw shooting with the addition of Foster and Butler could potentially be a major improvement this season from last season. Of course, Sullinger needs to do his part because in reality, Ohio State was 32-of-43 from the line, which is a more down-to-earth 74 percent (although that's still worlds better than last season's 64 percent team ranking from the line).
Northern Kentucky head coach Dave Bezold has some high praise for one particular Buckeye—center captain, Terence Dials.
"With his back to the basket, he is definitely the best big man we've faced and that's saying something because we have faced UK and UC," Bezold said after the game of Dials. "Maxiell from Cincinnati is great but isn't really a true post player. Dials is old-school in the fact that he takes a drop step and puts it up and scores. He uses his body real well and is the type of player that you want on your team."
Tony Stockman- Stockman is not the out-of-control, enigmatic player of a year ago. His shot-selection seems to be a lot better this season, he's improved defensively, gives forth better effort, and makes better decisions with the ball. In the first half of Tuesday's exhibition game, he played good solid defense beyond the arc for most of the half and took as many shots inside the arc as outside. In the second half, he kind of disappeared completely. He had no flow in the offense whatsoever. Of course, some might call that an encouraging sign because it's better that he doesn't do enough than try to do too much. Tony has improved tremendously, but he will need to be a consistent scorer and cannot disappear from the offense this season. Stockman finished with 9 points on 3-of-8 shooting from the field. He had two assists and only one turnover in 31 minutes of action.
Je'Kel Foster- Foster has probably been the surprise of the season thus far for Ohio State. Of course, the prior coaching staff felt they were getting a solid player who would really help this team a lot this season, but I don't think many expected Foster to contribute as much as he has thus far. Foster is a streaky shooter and might not always consistently score the 19 points he had Tuesday evening. However, he's a hard-nosed player who played great defense (evidenced in part by four steals). Foster was a big spark for Ohio State. He played 35 minutes, was 6-of-8 from the field, and was (a much needed) 6-of-6 from the free throw line. Last season, Foster was an 86 percent shooter from the FT line.
Jamar Butler- Butler is probably the most important player for Ohio State this upcoming season, because his development at the point guard position is key to the Buckeyes' success. Butler missed a couple of first-half shots, but played a strong second half offensively by way of running the offense, and played an even more inspired defensive game. Butler in my estimation was hands-down the best defensive player on the floor. Butler finished with 6 points, two assists, and no turnovers in 24 minutes of action. He needs to build off this performance and continue to play as well as he did.
Ricardo Billings- Where in the world is Ricardo? I cannot say with any certainty of what happened to Billings, but he's been conspicuously absent. For the second time that I saw him, it's not that he played poorly, it's just as if he didn't play at all. Billings only played six minutes, so he didn't play a whole lot, but the only stat he has to even prove he played was one lone rebound. He played well on the defensive end and did a nice job fighting through screens, but offensively he just seems lost. After the summer Billings had, it's very strange he has been buried in the game plan. Ohio State could use him to regain his confidence.
J.J. Sullinger- With Sullinger this season, you're going to need to take the good with the bad. Let's start with the good. Sullinger did a fantastic job on the boards. It's not out of the question that Sullinger may finish the season with nearly double-digit rebounds a game. He finished with 10 rebounds on Tuesday. The other encouraging thing is that Sullinger used his athleticism and got to the line—a lot. He's in better physical condition as well, although he still showed some signs of being a little winded late in Tuesday's game. Of course, getting into game shape takes time. The bad, however, still outweighs the good in my opinion. His free throw shooting is very sick to watch. Shooting 55 percent (11-of-20) as he shot on Tuesday won't cut it. Sullinger gave up six or seven wide-open 3-pointers. That alone is a major liability.
Matt Sylvester- Sylvester played sparingly (10 minutes) on Tuesday. He had two rebounds and an assist. Unfortunately, Sylvester stood out more for what he did (or didn't do) on defense than what he did on offense. Sylvester got burnt two or three times off the dribble by his man, giving up an easy lay-up inside. It wasn't a matter of effort, but it's disgusting to watch a Division II player beat you so often to the hoop. On the plus side, in warm-ups it appears Sylvester's hitch from his shot is completely gone as he looked much more fluid shooting the ball. It's too early to say if that will carry over to the season, as he only took one shot.
Ivan Harris- Like Sylvester, Harris struggled a bit defensively. Theoretically speaking, Harris could play a lot at the wing this season, getting Matt Terwilliger into the lineup later in the season. However, I'm convinced that Harris likely would get beat badly by quicker Big Ten wings if he attempted to guard them. Harris was also getting beat off the dribble too often and lost his man a few times for easy 3-pointers. On the bright side, he did show the ability to make a mid-range shot, and he wasn't afraid to do it several times. I do hope he isn't too afraid to drive the ball to the hoop, as he appeared to be Tuesday. Harris finished with 6 points and four rebounds in 25 minutes of action. He did have two early turnovers.
Jermyl Jackson-Wilson- Jackson-Wilson played just four minutes on the night. In those four minutes, he showed his athletic ability and picked up three rebounds. But on the other hand, in just four minutes, he also committed three turnovers and had two personal fouls. Jackson-Wilson has some ability on the offensive end, but he's not a very good ball-handler, and it appears he's nowhere near close to being able to contribute because of that.
Terwilliger slams one home
Matt Terwilliger- Terwilliger had 2 points, a rebound, and an assist in just 10 minutes of action Tuesday when filling in for Dials. He showed a few very nice passes, played admirably on the defensive side of action, and continued to look comfortable with the ball in his hands. Against stronger players in the Big Ten, he could run into problems, but over time, I believe he will develop into a nice player—maybe even by the end of the year.
Matt Marinchick- Marinchick played only three minutes on the night and he had exactly one turnover to show for it. Although Marinchick played well in times against Dials in the open practice, it's obvious the staff still feels more comfortable with Terwilliger on the floor when Dials is not.
Terence Dials- After Tuesday, and from all the reports from practice and the scrimmage Ohio State had against Bowling Green, it's obvious that this team will center around Dials. Arguably, Dials might be one of the best centers in the entire country, let alone the Big Ten. Dials played just 22 minutes on Tuesday, and yet he had a team-high 22 points and also added seven rebounds before fouling out late in the game. It's clear Ohio State has at least one go-to guy this season provided he stays healthy and out of foul trouble—which Tuesday proved could be a concern.
It's hard to take away too much from an exhibition game, much less against a Division II team as your opponent. However, although it's too early to say how good (or bad) this team is, I'd like to make a few final observations.
--The free throw shooting should be a lot better this year with only a few exceptions. Besides Brandon Fuss-Cheatham, J.J. Sullinger, and perhaps one or two others, the team looks like it could be a very strong free throw shooting team. With Butler, Foster, and Stockman, Ohio State now has a backcourt that will consistently put the ball in the hoop from the line. Terence Dials is also a very good free throw shooter, which considering the amount he will be at the line, should help immensely.
--The defense will be a lot better, at least in stretches. There are still a few holes there, as evidenced by Northern Kentucky raining threes in the second half. In particular line-up combinations, however, it appears the defense will be solid. Foster and Butler appear to be a major improvement to the defense, and Stockman is improved. There is still a lot of work to do, but it looks like it won't quite be as bad—at least as last year was.
--I see the possibility of a few more scorers this year. However, as the second half showed, there's still an issue of consistency. We know Ohio State has a bona-fide post option in Dials. We also know that Stockman and apparently Foster can score. However, both they and Harris and Butler need to continue to elevate their offensive play for Ohio State to be successful. It wouldn't hurt for Billings to show up.
--The bad news was that the Buckeyes still turned the ball over 13 times, which isn't terrible, but it's not good either. Interestingly enough, however, eight of those 13 came from players playing at the power forward or center position. That means the backcourt was only responsible for five turnovers. A turnover is a turnover, but if the backcourt is going to be turning the ball over a lot less this season, that's an encouraging trend for later in the year.
Better guard play
Better perimeter defense for a majority of the game
Fewer stupid mistakes
A little better shooting
Outside of Sullinger, terrific free throw shooting
Nice first outing for Butler
Still too many open 3-pointers
Not consistent offensive execution
Poor job in cutting off penetration from 3 & 4 players
Sullinger's free throws
Still no Billings
Stockman needs to stay involved for 35 minutes
13 turnovers are still too many
The team should have put Northern Kentucky away more than they did