Wednesday, November 30

Buckeye Basketball Preview

Even with how disastrous the 2011 year has been for Ohio St football, Buckeye fans have reason for optimism. As has been noted several times on this blog, Urban Meyer is our new football coach and, after a brief one-year hiatus, OSU’s dominance over the Big Ten looks to continue. Also, Ohio St hoops is really, really good. Evidence of this was found in last night’s 23-point shellacking of #3 ranked Duke. I realize we are only a couple of weeks into this season, but if Duke is as good as people say they are (and they usually are), this will probably be the most impressive performance from any team all regular season long. The Bucks dominated from start to finish in every aspect of the game to notch their 29th consecutive home win. I’ll take a look at some of the keys and possible downfalls to an Ohio St title run in March, as well as the usual random thoughts that cross my mind. (If you want to read a more well-written and informed preview, check out Mark Titus’ piece for Grantland, but read mine first.)

Ohio St has a “core-four” of guys that will do the majority of the work this year (See: Duke game, 76 out of 85 points). I’ll briefly break down how each can contribute (or impede) the hopes of cutting down the nets, as well as what we can expect from the rest of squad.

Jared Sullinger, Forward
It really all starts and ends with this guy. He was probably the best player in the nation last year, averaging over 17 points and 10 rebounds a game. Since then he has shed some weight and just looks like an absolute monster. He was quick at 300+ pounds last year, now at 280 I don’t know if there is a quicker big man in the country.

There are a lot of reasons to be impressed with this guy, but two stand out for me. The first is his intensity. He has such a strong passion for the game and the will to win, and you can see it every time he steps onto the court. You can tell he is enjoying himself out there, but cross him and look out. His flexing/best-impression-of-a-mean-ape-face (pictured above) can be intimidating for the opposition as well as motivating/confidence boosting for his teammates. The other thing I really like about Sully is his foul shooting. While his 70% last season wasn’t spectacular, it’s still good enough to take the hack-a-Shaq method off the table. In the small sample size of this season, he’s upped that number to 83%. It is pretty tough to stop this man without fouling, and if he’s hitting from the stripe at an 83% clip, you might as well go home now.

Sullinger’s one slight weakness that I talked about a season ago was that he looked lost at times on defense when fellow big man Dallas Lauderdale wasn’t in the game to back him up. Knowing that Dallas would be gone this year, he has clearly worked on that part of his game as he looks like a much tougher one-on-one defender this season. The key for him will be playing aggressive D without getting into foul trouble, which has never plagued him before but could be more of a factor without the presence of Swat-erdale behind him.

I may not be going out on much of a limb here, but I’m calling Sully hoisting the Naismith Award at season’s end.

Aaron Craft, Point Guard
Last year as a freshman, Craft’s decision-making, defense, and passing ability looked like that of a sixth-year senior. He seems to have only improved each of those traits, as well as adding some range - averaging 15 points on 4/9 three-point shooting the past three games. Ohio St will need someone other than Sullinger and Will Buford to step up as a third scoring option this season, and Craft may be able to lend a hand here and there.

That being said, his game is still about controlling the ball, making expert passes, and playing Steve Wojo-like defense. Now, Craft isn’t and never will be the shooting threat that Jamar was, but his passing game reminds me so much of former OSU PG Jamar Butler. The way he sees everything on the court is astonishing. He makes near-full court passes seem like bounce passes from the foul line. Jared Sullinger is the team’s best player, but Aaron Craft may be the key to the season. (Also, I put the over/under on how many times an announcer informs us that he was the starting quarterback and valedictorian of his high school at 5,000.)

William Buford, Guard/Forward
Buford is a four-year starter and the lone senior on this Buckeye squad. If you want to be entertained, watch Will Buford. He’s never seen a shot he didn’t like, but he’s also never averaged less than 11 points in his four seasons in the scarlet and grey. The man is a scoring machine, and with a fabulous year actually has a chance to become Ohio St’s all-time leading scorer. My friend and I used to laugh watching him as a freshman and sophomore, because I literally don’t think he passed once in two seasons. He still doesn’t like to share the rock, but he has developed his overall game by a significant margin (his rebound, assist and shooting percentage numbers this season are all career highs, while his turnovers are down).

While I have no problem with Buf jacking up shot after shot, I would still like to see him try to get to the basket more. The problem with strictly jump-shooting players is that one cold night could be catastrophic if your team is counting on them. We all remember Will’s 2 of 16 shooting performance against Kentucky in last year’s Sweet 16 all too well.

Deshaun Thomas, Forward
The similarities of Thomas’ game last year to Buford during his freshman season were staggering. He never passed up an opportunity to shoot, even when that clearly was the wrong decision. If he can progress like Buf, however, Buckeye fans are in for a treat the next few years, because the guy can score. He really took over the Duke game when the Devils closed the gap midway through the first half. He has range, but definitely needs to get more selective in his shooting. Watching him and Buford on the floor at the same time is overly comical/enjoyable. Also, I’d like to now formally nickname him “Tank.”

The Rest
With the fabulous trio of Jon Diebler, David Lighty, and Dallas Lauderdale all graduating from last year’s seven-man rotation, no one other than the above four have any real playing experience. Now with the talent level of those four, Thad Matta isn’t asking a lot from the rest of his players, but their contribution, however little it may be, could be the difference between winning or losing a tight game in March.

Seven other members of the Buckeyes have seen decent minutes thus far, and the cast of characters is as follows: junior forward Evan Ravenel, sophomore guards Lenzelle Smith and Jordan Sibert and forward J.D. Weatherspoon, and the freshman class of Shannon Scott (G), Sam Thompson (F), and Amir Williams (C).

The three I expect to be permanent fixtures of the rotation are Smith, Sibert, and Ravenel. The members outside the top four aren’t going to need to score, they’re going to be asked to play good defense and rebound, and these three guys seem to be the best at that. Smith has gotten the start at each game so far, so he obviously has the inside track to see the most minutes. I see him as sort of a David Light. (Get it, as in the watered down version of David Lighty? I am so damn clever.) He’s going to be challenged with the task of being that lockdown perimeter defender that Lighty was, plus he can do a little bit of everything, just not as good as Lighty could obviously (5.4 points, 4.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.7 steals this season).

Sibert may be the only name you recognize from last season, as he was the 8th man and saw limited action here and there. Ravenel just looks like a beast, and is the only guy with real size other than Jared. Weatherspoon is probably the best scorer out of this bunch, but as I’ve stated scoring isn’t what these guys are needed to do. I understandably haven’t seen much of these freshmen, but Williams was the most highly touted and probably has the most potential.

The NCAA field is wide open this year, with North Carolina and Kentucky (along with Ohio St) looking like the heavyweights. The Bucks will make a trip to Kansas on December 10, and then should cruise through the rest of the non-conference schedule into the new year. The Big Ten is perennially tough, and this year is no different. Wisconsin is a top 10 squad and as always virtually unbeatable at home, and teams 3-9 in the conference could beat anyone on any given night (Penn St, Nebraska, and Iowa being the other three that just flat-out stink).

Seeing as the college basketball regular season means absolutely nothing, I don’t think it would hurt the Bucks to lose a game or two throughout the year. It’s always nice to win a conference title and securing a #1 seed in the tourney can’t hurt, but aren’t necessary elements to bringing home a title.

Jared Sullinger just needs to be Jared Sullinger. Barring an injury, he’s going to be a beast - no doubt in my mind. The keys for a Buckeye championship run will be for Aaron Craft to continue playing at an All-American level, Will Buford to be a consistent scorer, Tank Thomas to provide a solid third scoring option, and the rest of the crew playing good enough defense to not blow a game. Chin up, Buckeye fans - this is going to be an entertaining and successful b-ball season.



Anonymous said...

Even with the recent injury to Trevor Mbakwe, I think Minnesota finishes in the top half of the Big 10. Any ranking that has it otherwise is off. I thought these rankings were very thorough and accurate.

Thanks for your insight! Great post. Love it.

Figgs said...

Glad you could share your thoughts, annoy...

Minnesota has been solid for years, it's about time they get their shit together.