In Big Ten Tournament run, Ohio State's Roddy Gayle shows tantalizing glimpse at future

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch

CHICAGO – Roddy Gayle walked into the United Center high on promise and light on most everything else.

A role player on an Ohio State team dealing with its least successful season in nearly three decades, Gayle’s season was winding down without a lot of in-game production to show for it. Aside from a 12-point outburst against a hopelessly overmatched St. Francis (Pa.) team in early December, the freshman guard had been praised for his defensive capabilities as his offense was slotted into the category of “wait and see.”

Now after what we saw in the Big Ten Tournament, the only waiting is for the 2023-24 season to get underway and see what Gayle can do then. Because based on what Gayle showed during four games on the Bulls’ home floor, all the promising talk throughout his freshman season wasn’t hyperbole.

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“It’s been a learning experience for me, especially with guys like Brice (Sensabaugh) out, our offense was a little stagnant so I felt like that was a little bit of an opportunity for me to step up,” he said. “Definitely a confidence-booster knowing my teammates and coaches have some confidence in me. That allows me to play more freely.

“That pretty much sums this week for me.”

It started inauspiciously enough, as Gayle had four points, a rebound and a block in 21 minutes as a starter in the opening-round 65-57 win against No. 12 seed Wisconsin. But when the Buckeyes needed big buckets late against No. 5 seed Iowa in the second round, it was Gayle who rose to the occasion. His drive and finish tied the game at 57, his next drive tied the game at 61 and his subsequent 3-pointer – Gayle’s first since a Feb. 23 loss to Penn State – gave Ohio State a 64-63 lead in the 18th and final lead change of the game.

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He would add two free throws with 33.4 seconds remaining, giving him nine points all in the last 6:02, seven of which either tied the game or took the lead. It also proved to be the start of a hot shooting streak: he hit all three of his 3-point attempts in a quarterfinal win against Michigan State on Friday and then his first five attempts in Saturday’s season-ending loss to No. 1 seed Purdue. He finished with a team-high 20 points.

The final result: in four win-or-go-home games at the United Center, Gayle averaged 12.0 points and shot 64.0% (16 for 25) from the floor and 81.8% (9 for 11) from deep. He missed his first and last 3-point attempts of the tournament and hit all of them in between.

In 31 regular-season games, Gayle had averaged 3.7 points, shot 39.7% from the field and made 12 3-pointers.

“Man, that hoop felt huge when I started hitting two or three,” he said. “I don’t know, man. It just felt like I couldn’t miss at a point in time.”

Borderline unconscious shooting streaks aside, this is more the player Ohio State expected when it signed Gayle, a four-star prospect from Youngstown, New York, who played at Wasatch Academy in Utah for his final two seasons but returned home to finish out his schooling and graduate with his friends. Of the five freshmen the Buckeyes signed, Gayle was the highest-rated in the composite database at No. 49 nationally.

For much of the year, though, he’s lagged behind classmates Brice Sensabaugh and Bruce Thornton from a production standpoint. Sensabaugh, a potential first-round NBA Draft pick, led the team in scoring while Thornton was voted into a captain role midseason. In Chicago, Gayle looked like a three-level scorer as well as a high-level defender who can harass opposing guards.

Ohio State's head coach Chris Holtmann hugs Roddy Gayle Jr. (1) after an NCAA college basketball game against Iowa at the Big Ten men's tournament, Thursday, March 9, 2023, in Chicago. Ohio State won 73-69. (AP Photo/Erin Hooley)

“I was really proud of Roddy,” coach Chris Holtmann said after Gayle scored a season-high 15 points in the Michigan State win. “He's put in a lot of work, and he's had Bruce and other guys who have kind of had really big seasons. Obviously, Brice is a freshman, and sometimes you can compare yourself to them, and it can bother you. I think he's just stayed with working.”

Leaning against the wall outside of the team’s locker room, Gayle said he’s got a lot of goals for the offseason. He wants to build some strength, improve his ball skills with help from associate head coach Jake Diebler and continue to grow his vocal leadership so he can help ensure that the Buckeyes don’t find themselves in this position again.

“I believe us freshmen and the returning players for next year need to set a level of intensity from early on,” he said. “I don’t think we should be able to wait all the way until February or March to be able to play some of our best basketball. It should be coming in January where we’re already together. With a decent amount of returners next year I think our chemistry should be better.”

Gayle, alongside fellow first-year players Felix Okpara and Thornton, are expected to be critical components for next year’s success. The same would be true should Sensabaugh opt to return.

“I feel like me, Bruce, Fe, I feel like the sky’s the limit for us,” Gayle said. “We’ve shown so much improvement throughout the season I feel like we have so much more to grow. I think it’s going to be a really good improvement next year.”

Despite not seeing as much early playing time as hoped, Gayle has not wavered in his belief in his future at Ohio State. Both privately and publicly, the freshman has been consistent: he has no plans to transfer, even as the losses piled up this year.

“I chose Ohio State for a reason,” he said. “Not only the basketball aspect but I felt like it was a family. These past few months with these guys in the locker room and these coaches, it just helped me so much. I appreciate Justice (Sueing), Sean (McNeil), Ice (Likekele) for teaching me the ropes. I give them all my respect. I’m a Buckeye forever.”


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