2011-12 RTC Class Schedule: Ohio State BuckeyesPosted by zhayes9 on September 12th, 2011
Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist for Rush the Court.
In the immediate aftermath of Ohio State’s premature outing in the Sweet 16 last March, with emotions running high and thoughts clearly unfiltered, Jared Sullinger made a promise. The Columbus native swore to anyone who would listen that such a bitter ending to a once-promising season meant he’d be back in scarlet and gray next year.
Of course, this is a common habit in college basketball. Superstars from across the nation see their season’s come to a dramatic conclusion and promise revenge before the voices of agents, endorsements and draft advisors enter the picture. Once the dramatics have died down and the options are juggled, the superstar thanks his school for the opportunity and moves on to NBA riches.
Except Jared Sullinger was serious. The Columbus native was not about to see his collegiate career end three rounds too early. Instead, the top freshman in the country next season shed some weight, refined a lacking mid-range game and returns to Ohio State as dedicated and headstrong as ever. Those NBA prospects can wait one more year.
Team Outlook: Sullinger’s stunning decision catapults the Buckeyes to a familiar state as preseason Big Ten favorites. He’s joined by fellow sophomore Aaron Craft at the point, a wildly intelligent and steady presence at such a vital position. The top scoring option on the perimeter is senior William Buford, a potential first round pick that improved his shot-making. Only Sullinger utilized more possessions when on the floor than DeShaun Thomas last season. After shooting 54% from inside the arc with promising rebound rates, Thomas is primed for a breakout campaign if he shows more discretion. Look for freshman center Amir Williams to act as the primary operator in the post if Sullinger expands his game, while LaQuinton Ross, Shannon Scott and Jordan Sibert should all get looks from Thad Matta before he inevitably trims his rotation. Don’t under-estimate the loss of ultimate glue guy David Lighty and sharpshooter Jon Diebler; this unit won’t be quite the powerhouse they were in 2010-11.
Non-Conference Schedule Rank: 6.5. The Buckeyes don’t leave home until mid-December, but they do welcome both Florida and Duke to Columbus in November. The contest vs. Florida is part of ESPN’s Tip-Off Marathon with the Gators aiming for an ounce of revenge after last season’s beatdown in Gainesville. Stalwart defender Aaron Craft will have his hands full with Florida sparkplug Erving Walker. Ohio State also drew top-ten Duke and their plethora of scoring wings in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Both squads are similar in that they lost key components from last year, but expectations remain sky high. December presents two road tests to Kansas and South Carolina. The Jayhawks don’t appear vintage this season, but it remains a formidable task for any visitor in Allen Fieldhouse.
Cupcake City: Rather than fill his buy games with mid-majors that won’t weigh down their RPI, Matta instead scheduled the dregs of Division I: Jackson State, North Florida, VMI, Texas Pan-American, South Carolina Upstate and Lamar. Even Horizon opponents like Wright State and Valparaiso aren’t expected to challenge Detroit or Butler in that league. Rather than risk a confidence-crippling upset against a plucky mid-major that’ll play into March, Ohio State instead opted for a sprinkling of glorified scrimmages around the likes of Florida, Duke and Kansas.
Toughest Early Season Test: Bill Self’s seven consecutive Big 12 titles is one of the most underappreciated streaks in sports. To claim the crown in a power conference for almost a decade in an era of one-and-done and constant turnover is a remarkable feat. Before we all quit on the Jayhawks because they lost the Morris twins and failed to secure a loaded freshman class, let’s keep Self ‘s streak in mind. This is a long and winding way of predicting that Ohio State will lose to Kansas in Lawrence when they meet on December 10. Whether it’s Tyshawn Taylor, Thomas Robinson, Elijah Johnson or a collective effort, it’s foolish to predict Kansas’ demise at this point until it actually happens.
Hardest Big Ten Stretch: Ohio State better get their laughs in before the calendar turns to February. During the last month of the season, the Buckeyes don’t have one single pushover game (i.e. Iowa, Nebraska, Penn State) on their schedule. Matta will have his team fully prepped for the rigors of March after concluding a stretch that begins with a February 4 visit to the death trap known as Madison and ends at East Lansing exactly one month later. The Big Ten may not boast any superpowers after Ohio State, but the conference is packed with tough outs like Jordan Taylor’s Badgers, Robbie Hummel’s Boilermakers, Tim Hardaway’s Wolverines, Draymond Green’s Spartans and John Shurna’s Wildcats. Ohio State faces all six of those teams in the final month of the campaign.
Easiest Big Ten Stretch: Matta’s crew does have a chance to bloat their record before February. If they can win two of three from Florida, Duke and Kansas, sweep the patsies and down Indiana twice, Nebraska twice, Iowa, Illinois and Penn State to kick off the Big Ten campaign, the Buckeyes will absolutely be near or at the top of the rankings. The back-loaded schedule provides Matta the opportunity to experiment with rotations, inspire confidence and build momentum against lesser opponents before gearing up for a strenuous last two months.
Best Individual Matchup: Luckily for Sullinger, this conference isn’t packed with impact big men, but one that will undoubtedly cause a challenge is Minnesota’s Trevor Mbakwe. The Marquette transfer will give Sullinger a preview of what’s to come at the professional level. Mbakwe possesses NBA size and strength, is a ferocious competitor and ranked near the top in the Big Ten as a junior in rebounding, blocks and fouls drawn per 40 minutes. In fact, Sullinger and Mbakwe ranked 18th and 19th in the country, respectively, in defensive rebounding percentage. The Gophers big man physicality and post defense will be a fantastic contrast to the more offensive-minded Sullinger.
Most Challenging Road Test: Regardless of rankings, expectations or future pros, Wisconsin is the default answer here for any Big Ten competitor. The 78-6 home record against Big Ten opponents (152-11 overall) since Bo Ryan took over in 2002 is nearly unfathomable. Adding fuel to the fire is the second-half thrashing Ohio State sustained last season at the hands of Wisconsin to dent their unblemished record. Jordan Taylor led the charge in that contest with a firestorm of second-half baskets. He’s back for the Badgers as my early favorite for national player of the year.
Most Anticipated Home Date: Normally I refrain from venturing outside of conference play here, but any time a program with the stature of Duke, North Carolina, Kansas or Kentucky makes a rare visit, it’s going to generate a tremendous buzz. One year after sending #2 Michigan State to #1 Duke, the schedule-makers did college hoops fanatics another favor and shipped Duke to Ohio State in a much-anticipated battle of top ten squads. Whereas Duke’s strength at the wings is somewhat neutralized by Buford and Thomas, the Buckeyes hold the edge at point guard and power forward given Craft’s comfort/experience at the position and Sullinger’s pure skill level. Whether one of the Plumlee brothers or Ryan Kelly can contain Big Sully down low may determine the outcome.
Upset Watch: With a steady diet of talented underclassmen, the hyped arrival of Cody Zeller and a loaded 2012 recruiting class on the horizon, Indiana’s time in the national spotlight is approaching, but still likely two seasons away. 2011-12 does appear to be the campaign they make another leap forward in this long rebuilding process. With the underrated Christian Watford joining scorer Verdell Jones, three-point marksman Jordan Hulls and the freshman Zeller, Indiana has talent. If their lackluster team defense improves and Maurice Creek can stay out of the trainer’s room, Ohio State may be in for an early season surprise on New Year’s Eve if they take the upstart Hoosiers for granted.