Jae’Sean Tate is tough, energetic and plays with an enthusiasm that is fun to watch. And Ohio State will become a top-flight basketball program again only when people stop talking about him.

Only when that happens — when TV broadcasters stop gushing about Tate’s passion and personality — will the Buckeyes have bounced all the way back up from the bottom. Only then will depth of talent trump the other intangibles that fans, coaches and media fall back on when trying to find the positives to describe a down-on-its-luck program.

You know the deal. You hear it whenever Ohio State struggles against more talented teams, as it did Saturday in an 86-72 loss to No. 5 North Carolina in the CBSSports Classic in New Orleans. As UNC flashed its superior skill and depth — the Tar Heels’ bench outscored the Buckeyes’ subs 32-6 — CBS announcers Brad Nessler and Bill Raftery gushed about Tate’s energy.

It’s like when I overhear dating discussions among 20-somethings, in which “He’s such a nice guy” is code for “Something is missing.”

Let me be clear, Tate is not my dartboard. True, as a 6-foot-4 tweener he cannot be expected to effectively play the point, is not accurate enough with his jumper to be a sniper and not big enough to dominate in the paint. But he still gets a ton out of his ability, largely because he plays so darn hard.

The issue is not what Tate is missing, but what the Buckeyes lack in their entirety. If Ohio State had the equivalent of a Mike Conley Jr., Jared Sullinger or even Jon Diebler — where have all the sharpshooters gone? — there would be less need to go on and on about Tate’s admirable attributes, and Clark Kellogg and the gang would be talking about the Buckeyes’ chances of playing deep into March.

If I had to use two words to summarize Saturday’s game, it would be talent differential. North Carolina aces the eyeball test. Ohio State passes. Even though the Buckeyes cut the deficit from 19 points to nine with 1:10 left, you never had the feeling they were in the game after playing the Heels mostly even the first 15 minutes.

In that way, the loss was a test to show where the Buckeyes are and where they need to be. I grade their current play a solid “B,” which may not sound like a report card to brag about but comes off looking brilliant compared to the underwhelming efforts of the past several seasons.

The bright side, with potential to eventually become blinding, is that Chris Holtmann has the Buckeyes playing hard, confident and in sync. A year ago, Ohio State would have lost this game by 30 and looked uninterested in doing so. No more. Missing are the slumped shoulders and long stretches of lethargic play that made recent episodes of OSU basketball nearly unwatchable.

Certainly, soft spots exist. The Buckeyes still need a consistent outside shooter, and Keita Bates-Diop remains the only player with NBA potential, although I like what I see of freshman Kaleb Wesson from Westerville South. It’s not like Ohio State is ready to win the Big Ten or do serious damage in the NCAA Tournament. North Carolina poured a dose of reality on talk of OSU being this year’s biggest surprise team. Not that it can’t happen, but the low talent ceiling makes it a stretch.

The rebuild will take more than one season to accomplish. But with better recruiting, the Buckeyes can get there. And that will be something to talk about.