Big Ten Summer Check In: Ohio State BuckeyesPosted by jnowak on August 2nd, 2012
Another All-American gone, so who steps in to help fill the void and keep Ohio State as one of the top teams in the Big Ten? Surely it will be somebody — likely Aaron Craft and/or Deshaun Thomas — for Thad Matta, who has done nothing but rebuild and reload during his time in Columbus. He brings in elite-level recruits, they perform quickly and at a high level, then head off to the professional ranks and Matta does it again. Wash, rinse, repeat. So does that mean these summer months are the rinsing stages? There’s no time like the offseason for a captain to grab ahold of his team, and if Craft is the leader we’ve seen over the last two years, he’s probably gearing up for offseason workouts now just as much as he is for the first tip-off.
- Evaluating Last Year: The Buckeyes were a primary reason why the Big Ten was held in such high regard last season, making an early non-conference statement by beating Florida and hammering Duke at home. They slipped at Kansas without All-American center Jared Sullinger, but geared up again for Big Ten play. They dropped a contest at Indiana in one of the best conference games of the year, hitting a rough patch that included three losses in six games (including two at home versus Michigan State and Wisconsin). They lost again to the Spartans in the Big Ten Tournament championship but were the only Big Ten team to make it to the Final Four, where they arguably blew a two-point game to Kansas. There was a brief stretch late in conference play when it looked like the Buckeyes were a bit out of sync, but Sullinger and Matta got them back just in time to finish the year where many anticipated they would be.
- State of the Program: Under Matta, the Buckeyes have been one of the consistently excellent programs not only in the Big Ten, but also in the country. Matta continues to bring in top-tier recruits and, when many of them leave for the NBA after a year or two, he brings in some more. Matta’s Buckeyes pose a similar problem to the Big Ten schools as John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats pose to the SEC (and the rest of the country for that matter) with their ability to consistently reload with great, young talent prepared to jump right in and contribute immediately. Ohio State and Michigan State have essentially shared the conference’s top perch over the last four years, with each team claiming at least a share of the regular season title every year since 2009 and the last three Big Ten Tournament titles.
- Players Not Returning: The most high-profile subtraction will obviously be Sullinger, who left for the NBA after terrorizing Big Ten interior opponents for two seasons. And for the first time in what seems like ages (to opposing fans, certainly), the team will also be without shooting guard William Buford, who departs as the team’s only senior from the 2011-12 roster. Buford, who finished his four-year career at Ohio State tied for third all-time in scoring, figured to be an All-Big Ten selection in his senior season but never really caught fire. Other departures include outgoing in-state transfers Jordan Sibert (Dayton) and J.D. Weatherspoon (Toledo). Both were sophomores last year.
- Immediate Needs: Is it fair to say the Buckeyes don’t have a serious need anywhere specifically, but they need help everywhere? If there’s one thing that has hurt Matta’s clubs over the last few years, it’s been a lack of depth. Because of attrition to the NBA, it’s been difficult for players in the program to develop quickly enough to form any sort of deep bench. The contributors have typically either been five-star freshmen or a sporadic upperclassmen who stuck around. What Matta needs more than anything — and it’ll be tough with a one-man recruiting class in Amedeo Della Valle — is for a number of role players to step in and help out.
- Key Player(s) to Step Up: Craft and Thomas will be the obvious key players for this team, but they’re going to need a wing man or two. Literally. Lenzelle Smith, Jr., saw a huge boost in minutes from his freshman (4.6 MPG) season to his sophomore campaign (25.4 MPG) but he still only averaged 6.8 PPG last year. He has great talent and can become an important perimeter-wing player to complement Craft’s true point guard skills, but he’ll need to turn in the kind of consistency that Buford often struggled to find last year. Smith had a few big games during the regular season (he scored 28 in a huge win at home against Indiana, and 17 in a victory over Michigan), but the most encouraging sign may have been the double-digit scoring outputs in each of Ohio State’s last three NCAA Tournament games. In the frontcourt, look for 6’11” sophomore Amir Williams, who was sparsely-used last year, to help fill the void at center.
- Conclusion: There’s no reason to expect anything different from Ohio State this season, though it will likely be the first time in recent memory that they’re not considered a clear favorite to win the conference (that honor, for the first time in a while, goes to Indiana). But Thomas has Big Ten Player of the Year potential and we’ve seen what Craft can do on the defensive end, not to mention the way he leads this group on and off the floor. The key will be the role pieces, which young players can step up to fill in the voids and just how many players Matta can get production out of.