The 2010-2011 season ended with a bitter tournament loss to Kentucky. The Buckeyes, stacked with talent at multiple positions, had the makeup to achieve a Final Four run, but an uncharacteristically cold shooting performance allowed the Wildcats to escape with the 62-60 win.
It was especially heartbreaking for junior guard William Buford, whose 2 for 16 night included a near miss on what would have been a game-winning three.
Now Buford has a shot at redemption as he returns for his senior campaign. Team once again with point guard Aaron Craft and big man Jared Sullinger, he will be on a quest to end his Ohio State career with a flourish.
Can these Buckeyes win a title? The coaches seem to think so.
Along with UNC, Kentucky, and Connecticut, Ohio State has been dubbed one of the clear-cut favorites to make the Final Four and vie for a championship in 2011-2012. The Buckeyes rank #3 in the first USA Today Coaches Poll.
Last year ended with an outstanding 34-3 record (16-2 in Big Ten play). This year OSU is likely to repeat as conference champs.
No longer rookies, Sullinger and Craft will serve as the team’s primary threats this season. Having lost their premier defender in David Lighty and their three-point specialist in Jon Diebler, the Buckeyes will need to replace plenty of production. Dallas Lauderdale has also graduated, leaving the front court a bit lighter.
However, Sullinger was the key to victory last season, and if anything looks even more dangerous as the Bucks prepare this fall. Sully has slimmed down and gotten stronger, which can only help improve his already impressive rebounding numbers (10.2 rpg). With fewer veteran scoring options, and particularly no Diebler firing from long-range, his 17.2 points per game average could rise as well.
Sully is likely to be paired with forward Deshaun Thomas (7.5 ppg), the former Mr. Basketball from Indiana. Thomas showed flashes of his scoring ability last season but needed some time to mature before cracking the starting lineup. He should get plenty of minutes this year.
Two other players to watch are forwards J.D. Weatherspoon and Evan Ravenel. Weatherspoon suffered academic ineligibility last year but has been cleared to return, while Ravenel was forced to sit out after transferring to Ohio State from Boston College. Both should play this year, giving the frontcourt more depth than its had of late. Don’t expect either to be an impact player just yet, although Weatherspoon (at least) has the requisite raw talent. He needs polish and must improve his fundamentals, particularly on defense.
The backcourt will feature Buford and Craft as the starters, giving the Buckeyes plenty of skill at both the point and two-guard. Though nominally a backup last season, Craft left his mark by averaging nearly 30 minutes per game while leading the squad in assists (4.8 apg) and steals (2.0 spg). His innate ability to man the position and his skill in working with Sullinger will be critical to OSU’s success.
Sophomores Lenzelle Smith, Jr. and Jordan Sibert round out the backcourt options, but and could see some time early on if Ohio State sticks with a three-guard lineup.
New Blood Adds Depth
The biggest difference between last year and this should be the team’s depth. Coach Thad Matta will have options beyond a six-man rotation this year thanks to another influx of young talent. Just as Sullinger and Craft made their presence known as freshmen, so too will blue-chippers Shannon Scott (PG) and Amir Williams (C).
The 6’10” Williams is particularly intriguing, giving the Buckeyes their first threat at center since the departure of B.J. Mullens. Ranked as the nation’s #5 center by ESPN, Williams is heralded for his size and length, as well as his quickness, ability to run the floor, and skills around the rim. Scouts say he needs to work on maintaining good effort for longer stretches, but as an option off the bench in ’11-’12, he should provide Matta with a nice weapon for specific matchups.
Scott, at 6’2″, ranks as the #6 point guard in the ESPN Top 100. The son of former ABA and NBA player Charlie Scott, Shannon is said to be a true point guard with a high IQ and strong game management skills. Praised for his ball-handling and decision-making, Scott gives Matta options in the backcourt, and it will be interesting to see if and how he’s worked in with Craft.
Other key recruits from the ESPN Top 100 include 6’7″ Sam Thompson (#13 SF) and 6’8″ LaQuinton Ross (#16 SF). Thompson projects as a versatile swingman while Ross is more of a true forward with a good inside-outside offensive game. Both should see playing time in blowouts, but will spend most of the season learning the college game. Ross failed to qualify academically and is expected to sit out the season, though there is a slim chance he could become eligible in the spring.
OSU also added 6’8″ center Trey McDonald, an improving and potentially underrated player who will serve as bench depth.
Don’t be surprised if the Buckeyes rely on freshman power yet again this year. While Sullinger, Craft, and Buford are virtual locks to remain in the starting lineup throughout the season, the other two spots and key reserve roles are up for grabs. Thomas must work on becoming more consistent and adding defensive prowess to his strong shooting game if he wants to become the frontcourt threat that the team believes he can be.
He’ll be pushed hard by Williams and Thompson, although Matta has shown a preference for rewarding veterans with playing time when possible. It’s a win/win situation for the team, assuming the recruits play to their potential, and given Ohio State’s recent recruiting success, there is every reason to be confident in these young players.
Should Matta elect to put three guards on the floor, he’ll face a similar dilemma. Unlike Thomas, Smith, Jr. and Sibert got relatively little playing time last year, but in the early part of the season both will know the system better than Scott. A platoon could give way to Scott’s eventual emergence depending on how Matta chooses to use his two floor generals.
The current roster gives Matta a rotation as deep as eight or even nine players, which would be a far cry from last year’s tactics. That depth, along with the returning talent, puts the Bucks in position for another 30-win season.
Ohio State’s primary competition in the Big Ten will come from a rapidly improving Michigan team and the always talented Michigan State Spartans. Purdue could get to 20 wins with the talented Robbie Hummel coming back from consecutive knee injuries, but losing E’Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson might be too much for the Boilermakers to overcome. Similarly, Wisconsin must regroup behind guard Jordan Taylor after losing Jon Leuer, and anything more than a 20-win season might be out of reach.
Expect OSU to repeat as conference champs with those schools up north taking second and third.
The non-conference schedule has a string of overmatched opponents mixed in with some monster matchups. These include:
#10 Florida in Columbus (11/15, 8:00 pm)
#6 Duke in Columbus (11/29, 9:30 pm)
#13 Kansas in Lawrence 12/10, 3:15 pm)
Coaches Poll Pre-Season Ranks. All times eastern.
In Big Ten Play, the Buckeyes draw a pair of dates with Michigan, at home on January 29th (1:00 pm) and in Ann Arbor on February 18th (9:00 pm). Ohio State hosts Michigan State on February 11th (6:00 pm) before heading to East Lansing for the regular season finale on March 4th (TBD).
The team will face Purdue and Wisconsin only once each and in consecutive games: At Madison on February 4th (2:00 pm) and on February 7th against the Boilermakers at home (9:00 pm).