Friday, November 16

Buckeyes Basketball Preview

With their football counterparts enjoying a bye last week, Ohio St's roundballers hit the hardwood and presented me with the optimal time to take a look at this season's Buckeye hoops squad. The Buckeyes begin the season ranked #4 in the country, and even with the mammoth losses of Jared Sullinger and William Buford, Thad Matta certainly has enough talent in Columbus for another deep run in March. Let's take a look at what could get them there and what could stop them.

Last Season
Ohio St came into last season thinking National Championship or bust. Although they put together a remarkable season and made an appearance in the Final Four, they eventually busted. The Bucks finished the regular season with a 25-6 record, and then cruised to the Big Ten Championship before losing a close Final to Michigan St.

That landed them a #2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and they rather easily disposed of Loyola (MD), Gonzaga, Cincinnati, and Syracuse on their way to the Final Four in New Orleans. There they ran into a tough Kansas team, where they let a game-long lead slip away and ultimately lost by a bucket. (I don't know why you would want to relive that game, but it's all yours if you're up for it.) As I said in that recap, even though Ohio St was a very, very good team, the uber-talented Kentucky Wildcats would have beaten anyone in the nation 99 times out of 100 in the title game, so that reality softened the blow of that loss a bit.

Jared Sullinger was obviously the heart and soul of that team, and went on to become the Boston Celtics' first-round pick at #21 overall. Will Buford, Aaron Craft, and Deshaun Thomas formed a phenomenal supporting cast, but ultimately the talented group fell just short.

The Rotation
Ohio St welcomes back three gentlemen that started all 39 games last season in guards Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith and forward Deshaun Thomas. There were position battles for the other two starting spots, and Matta may go back and forth with these early on until he finds a rotation that he feels best suits his team.

At SF, high-flying Sam Thompson has more experience than his fellow sophomore LaQuinton Ross, but both have enormous potential. Thad already showed that he's willing to tinker with the lineup, as Ross got the starting nod in the exhibition game but Thompson was there for tip-off in the season-opener (last week's 82-60 win over Albany). Whoever does not start will be the 6th man and both guys will log heavy minutes.

The lone senior on the team, Evan Ravenel, will most likely see the starts at center, but 6'11 Amir Williams will see a lot more action. Ravenel is a little undersized (6'8) for the five and offers virtually zero offensive ability, whereas Williams has a ton of potential. Ravenel will still get a decent amount of minutes at both the PF and C positions, however, due to his tremendous physical presence and solid defense.

Shannon Scott will backup Craft at PG and will also see some time at the two since Craft rarely leaves the floor. Matta typically doesn't use more than seven or eight guys, but should he look further down the bench, big man Trey McDonald and freshman sharp-shooter Amedeo Della Valle will be waiting.

The Positives
While Ohio St will need some answers to a few important questions that I'll get to in a moment, they do have some pretty big positives. After all, they're not ranked 4th in the nation for nothing. Two bright spots certainly stand out right away - Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft.

Tank Thomas is a Preseason All-American and sleeper Player of the Year candidate. He averaged 15.9 points and 5.4 rebounds per game last season while shooting at a 54% clip from the field and 34% from the outside - all in Sullinger's shadow. Now the offense will run through him, and he surely won't be shy about taking the lead. Tank has never seen a shot he didn't like, and his propensity to shoot the rock could be his downfall. Don't get me wrong - Thomas is the Buckeyes' best (and possibly only) scoring option and he needs to get his shots, he just needs to progress and find the right shot-selection, much like Buford did as his career went on.

Reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Craft is the best on-ball defender in the nation. He averaged 2.5 steals per game last season, and could even surpass that this year. Craft is the epitome of the guy you hate to play against. His quick feet and hands are constantly forcing turnovers, and even though he looks like the picture of innocence with that baby-face of his, he won't be shy to tell you about it. Craft is also a great passer and floor-general, always seeing everything on the court. However, he'll have to improve his jump shot and ability to get to the basket in order to lighten some of the scoring load off of Thomas.

Obviously, Craft is the opposing offense's main concern, but this Buckeye team in general is a talented defensive group. Smith can hang with just about any two- or three-guard in the country, Thompson's athleticism will create some blocks and steals, and Rav and Williams can be devastating inside. Williams averaged a crazy 0.8 blocks in only 6.6 minutes a game last season. With concerns about being able to put the ball in the basket, Ohio St is going to rely on this defense and attempt to win games in the 50's and 60's.

The Questions
Two of the finest players to don the scarlet and gray in recent memory are gone, and replacing them won't be easy. Sully and Willy Buckets combined for 43% of the team's scoring last season, and replacing those points will be Ohio St's biggest concern in 2012-13.

While there won't be another Jared Sullinger for quite some time, if Tank can progress a little bit his production shouldn't be too far of a drop off from Sullinger's - at least scoring-wise. Thomas isn't near the defender or rebounder that Sully was, but Ravenel and Williams should help out in those aspects. Tank should be scoring in the 20's in every game, with a few 30-point performances here and there.

The biggest challenge facing our current Bucks will be to supplant the outside scoring from Buford. OSU is really counting on Lenzelle Smith to continue to improve and score at the rate he was towards the end of last season, but with more consistency. When his shot was on, there were games when he looked like the best player on the court. In others you didn't even know he was out there. The sky is really the limit for Zelle, and he needs to produce at a high level on a regular basis if the Buckeyes are going to make a run at this thing.

If not Smith (or even better, along with Smith), the Buckeyes' best remaining options for points will come from Ross, Thompson, and Scott. LaQuinton is far and away the best shooter of the bunch (Thompson and Scott combined for 1-32 from beyond the arc last season - really) but inexperience could hurt the sophomore early on as he only averaged a few minutes a game last season. Thompson has absurd athletic ability and is always good for one highlight reel dunk or block throughout the game (just check this out), but needs to develop a more all-around offensive game. Scott is a serviceable backup, but I wouldn't count on him to score in the double-digits.

The Schedule
There are several guys that Ohio St will be counting on without much experience (Thompson and Scott each averaged 10.6 minutes per game last season, Williams 6.6, Ross 3.9) who will be helped out early on with a favorable non-conference schedule. With last weekend's Marquette game being cancelled, there are really only two serious opponents on the docket. The Buckeyes will renew their series with both Duke and Kansas, this time playing on the opposite court as they did last season. This means the #9 Blue Devils will have revenge on their mind after the beatdown we gave them in Value City last season, and you know Cameron Indoor will be rocking on November 28. The good news is we went toe-to-toe at Kansas without Sullinger in a close loss last year, so we'll welcome the 7th-ranked Jayhawks to Columbus on December 22 fr a shot at revenge of our own.

The Buckeyes will be participating in the Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off in Connecticut this weekend, where they will face Rhode Island on Saturday and the Washington/Seton Hall winner Sunday. The rest of the games are all against weak mid-majors and shouldn't pose any problems.

Then you get into Big Ten play, where the conference is loaded, as always. The Big Ten's top-tier teams can't be matched by a conference in the country. In addition to OSU starting out 4th, Indiana comes in as the nation's top team, with michigan right behind us at 5. Michigan St currently stands at #21 even after their opening night loss to UConn, and you know Tom Izzo will always have a great team. The Bucks don't see Cody Zeller and the Hoosiers until February, and you can go ahead and circle the dates January 13 and February 5 right now, as the Buckeyes will welcome the wolverines to V.C. before traveling to their shit-hole.

There is definitely a drop off in the conference after those top four teams, but 22nd ranked Wisconsin, Purdue, Minnesota and Illinois always have solid squads and will be tough competition, especially on the road. Iowa, Penn St and Nebraska don't usually bring much to the table, but you never know.

The Outlook
From a pre-season perspective, Ohio St looks like an above-average team that should contend for the Big Ten title and probably bow out of the tournament around the Sweet 16/Elite 8. But it's college basketball, and anything can happen. If Thomas and Craft aren't any better than last year and none of the other players step up, they could finish in the bottom half of the conference and be upset in the first round of the tourney. If Tank is POY-caliber, Smith is an All-Conference performer, and they get some improved scoring from Craft and some of the other role players, this team could make another run at the Final Four. I would not be shocked at any of those outcomes. You just never know, and I'm excited to watch this group and see how things shake out.


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