It's fair to say that Ohio State is a next-man-up program. One season's class of seniors or the occasional gifted junior moves on and another crop of talented underclassmen bubble to the surface.
Sure, there have been the occasional anomalies like the 2006-07 freshman class of Greg Oden, Mike Conley and Daequan Cook, but most of the top Buckeyes manage to at least reach upperclassman status if they don't fully graduate.
Terence Dials begat David Lighty, who begat Evan Turner, who begat William Buford, who begat Deshaun Thomas, and the circle continues unbroken forever and ever, amen.
Experience is a key at OSU, particularly in the Thad Matta era.
This season's Buckeyes are loaded with experience. Matta's nine-man rotation features two seniors and five juniors, nearly all of whom have had at least one occasion of strapping the team to their backs and carrying it to a victory.
All of this makes finding minutes very difficult for freshman forward Marc Loving. The 6'7", 215-pound product of Saint John's HS in Toledo, Ohio is a scorer with a lanky body that will fill out as he reaches his upperclass years.
His description should sound familiar.
Following a Tradition
In 2010, a dominant scorer from Fort Wayne, Ind., arrived on the OSU campus and proceeded to establish himself as a dangerous scorer off Matta's bench. Three years later, Deshaun Thomas was an NBA draft pick.
The 2011 class brought in a talented transplant from Mississippi by way of New Jersey. His freshman year was essentially lost, but he broke out in the NCAA tournament as a sophomore, primarily serving as a backup for Thomas. Now, LaQuinton Ross is expected to contend for All-Big Ten honors and lead the Buckeyes in scoring this season.
Compare the numbers on Loving with his super-sub predecessors.
|Ohio State's Recent Bench Scoring Studs|
|Player||HS Sr. PPG||Coll. Fr. PPG||Coll. Fr. eFG%||RSCI Rank|
Loving didn't arrive in Columbus quite as highly rated as Thomas or Ross, but he's still been highly productive in his minutes.
No Conference for Young Men
The Big Ten is not traditionally a league where freshmen enter and dominate. Veteran experience and hard work often leads to success in the nation's most rugged conference.
The last freshman to be named first-team All-Big Ten was Ohio State's Jared Sullinger in 2011. It's not a streak that looks to be in serious jeopardy this season, either.
Among this season's true and redshirt freshmen, only Indiana's Noah Vonleh and Purdue's Bryson Scott are averaging more than eight points per game. Vonleh and Northwestern's Sanjay Lumpkin are the only ones over five rebounds per game.
The following table depicts nine of the only 10 Big Ten freshmen—true or redshirt—with offensive ratings greater than 100. Apologies to Northwestern's Lumpkin, cut for space limitations.
|B. Smotherman, Purdue||18.4||129.62||14.1||8.7||11.8||15.0||68.2||67.4|
|Marc Loving, OSU||12.3||128.85||22.0||9.5||11.7||9.2||53.2||61.0|
|Bronson Koenig, Wisc.||16.2||121.97||12.5||5.8||6.6||19.4||60.9||60.9|
|K. Stephens, Purdue||18.5||121.87||15.4||0.8||8.7||9.0||56.0||56.8|
|Zak Irvin, Michigan||16.7||118.15||20.2||5.1||10.8||8.1||56.3||56.5|
|Noah Vonleh, Indiana||22.2||115.57||24.4||14.1||29.2||20.0||56.8||62.1|
|Peter Jok, Iowa||14.4||110.2||23.4||2.9||8.4||15.0||45.5||51.4|
|Bryson Scott, Purdue||17.5||108.18||28.1||5.5||9.6||14.9||44.5||52.2|
|Jay Simpson, Purdue||13.7||106.47||22.4||15.2||19.4||15.4||47.6||49.5|
(All stats via StatSheet.com.)
The only two players more careful with the ball are Stephens and Irvin, both of whom have been primarily spot-up shooters. Loving's 29 free-throw attempts rank him seventh among all Big Ten freshmen, and he trails only Vonleh and Scott among players on this table.
Loving's 82.8 percent success rate at the line ranks him in the Big Ten's top 10. That kind of proficiency makes him a threat to every Ohio State opponent if he stays aggressive. That hasn't been a problem so far, as Loving's 63.0 FT rate (FTA/FGA) trails only slashing point guard Aaron Craft and bricklaying center Trey McDonald.
Finally, Loving has shown that he can go get himself some second chances. His 9.5 offensive rebounding percentage is second on Ohio State behind only 7'0" center Amir Williams.
How Much Loving Can the B1G Handle?
So let's get this straight: A guy who attacks the basket and pulls offensive rebounds without turning the ball over and can drill his foul shots? He sounds like a coach's dream, right? The downside for Loving is that Matta has multiple players like Ross or Sam Thompson with similar skill sets and more experience.
Loving's foul shooting is his big advantage, as Ross (60 percent), Shannon Scott (61 percent) and Thompson (65 percent) all struggle at the line. Late in the game, Loving's a guy who could see minutes when the opponent is in desperation fouling mode.
Those tense situations haven't happened yet, though, because Ohio State's nonconference schedule has been somewhat puny. How likely is Matta to trust a green freshman in a one-possession game on the road at Wisconsin or Iowa or Indiana?
If Loving can keep hitting the outside shot, he should vulture minutes from sophomore Amedeo Della Valle. That should keep his own playing time stable even as Matta tightens the rotation in conference games. Six or seven points per game seem a reasonable projection for a player who's scoring from just about everywhere.
A season of learning the college game, building a college body and experiencing tough minutes in tight games at vicious road venues should make Loving a dangerous player for the 2014-15 season.
For this year, he can content himself with being a spark off the bench, with the potential for greater success if an injury should befall Ross or Thompson.
Ross has been there. Thomas was there before him. The "stud bench scorer" role is a place of pride at Ohio State. Loving's ready to fill it in the games that really, really matter.
All statistics through games of December 25.
For more from Scott on college basketball, check out The Back Iron.