The past few seasons have not been easy for Ohio State’s head basketball coach Thad Matta. Strong recruiting efforts have been undone by players’ early departures to the NBA, leaving the team in a constant state of flux. After the 2006-2007 season, three of the Buckeyes’ best players elected to jump to the pros. Greg Oden, the highly touted 7-foot center, was the top overall draft pick. Guards Mike Conley, Jr. and Daequan Cook also chose to leave for the NBA- all three were one-and-done. Collectively, the trio averaged nearly 37 points, 17 rebounds, and 8 assists per game, so it was no surprise that the Buckeyes took a big step back in 2007-2008. After losing that kind of production, it was expected that the program would need time to rebuild.
After missing the 2008 NCAA Tournament, Thad Matta guided his team to an NIT Championship led by senior guard Jamar Butler and freshman center Kosta Koufos. Koufos, another 7-footer who stepped in to replace the outgoing Oden, averaged 14 points and nearly 7 rebounds per game that season. However, he too was a one-and-done, following Oden’s lead and declaring for the 2008 NBA draft. For the second consecutive season, Matta lost his best players- Butler to graduation and Koufos to the pros.
2008-2009 again required some major adjustments. The difference was that this time, Matta had several starters and key bench players returning. Freshmen Evan Turner, Jon Diebler, and David Lighty all resisted the lure of the NBA and came back for their sophomore season, giving Matta solid options at the guard and forward positions. To that foundation he added incoming freshman guard William Buford and center B.J. Mullens- Matta’s third 7-footer in three years. With the experience of Turner, Diebler , and Lighty and the inside presence of Mullens, the Buckeyes rebounded from their tourney miss with a 22-9 regular season and an invitation to the Big Dance. Unfortunately, it was a quick exit as a 2-point upset loss to Siena sent the young team packing after the first-round.
In what had become a dubious tradition, Mullens left the program for the NBA, depriving Matta of yet another 7-foot center. However, the remainder of the team stayed in Columbus. Now juniors, the trio of Turner, Diebler, and Lighty are all back for a third season. Sophomore William Buford also returned, as did developing center Kyle Madsen. For the first time in several seasons, Thad Matta has some veteran leadership, experience, and most importantly, continuity. His core players are all back, which is why the Buckeyes currently sit at #15 in both the AP and USA Today polls.
The 2009-2010 Buckeyes are led by the 6’7″ Turner, a ridiculously talented and versatile player who led the Big Ten in scoring last season. He also led the Buckeyes in steals, assists, and rebounds, and earned 1st team All-Conference honors following his sophomore season. This year Turner was named a pre-season All-American, and is generally regarded as one of the best players in college basketball. Despite his height, Turner will be running the point for the Buckeyes this year, giving Ohio State what should be one of the top transition games in the nation. He’s dangerous from anywhere on the floor; his complete skill set should allow him to lead the Buckeyes to a Big Ten title. And possibly more.
In their third season together, three-point expert Jon Diebler and swingman David Lighty should serve as an excellent supporting cast for Turner. The 6’5″ Lighty was injured in December of last year, and his absence was keenly felt. Now healthy, he should be a solid contributor along with the 6’5″ sophomore Buford. Buford, a former McDonald’s All-American, averaged double-digit points from the guard position last season, and should improve on those numbers this year.
Matta has guards Walter Offutt, Jeremie Simmons, and P.J. Hill rotating in off the bench, and can mix in the 6’9″ Kyle Madsen at center when he needs a taller lineup. This versatility, along with the quality of his starters, will be the Buckeyes’ primary strengths this season.
Expect the Buckeyes to play a fast-paced game throughout the year. The team will be looking to run on every possession, and has the quickness to make it happen. Matta jokingly stated that with his current team, he would advocate for a 24-second shot clock at the college level, and Ohio State’s speed and aggressiveness should make them tough to beat. It all starts with Turner, who will be a far cry from the typical point guard. His size and rebounding ability will allow him to maintain an inside presence in addition to controlling the floor. In short, he can do it all. And because this year’s group has significant experience, he has the tools around him to be successful.
Ohio State got out to a quick 2-0 start with easy tune-ups against Alcorn State and James Madison. Getting in an early rhythm is critical because the team’s next matchup is against North Carolina in the 2K Sports Classic at Madison Square Garden. This game will be one semifinal of the in-season tournament headlined by the Tarheels (#4), Buckeyes (#15), Syracuse Orange (#25), and Cal Golden Bears (#12). Syracuse and Cal will meet in the other semi, and the winners of the two games will meet in a final on the 20th. Losers will face-off in a consolation game.
Although this means some stiff early-season competition, it provides the Buckeyes with a significant opportunity to establish themselves as a legitimate threat this season. And they certainly have the potential to compete with anyone.
Though it’s far too soon to predict the season’s outcome with any certainty, early Tournament projections have the Buckeyes as a top 4 seed. They’ve been tabbed as one of the best teams in the Big Ten and should compete for the conference crown along with Wisconsin, Purdue, Michigan State, and Michigan. The high level of competition within the conference will give the team plenty of challenges along the way, but should also serve as excellent preparation for a deep tourney run in March.
With a strong lineup, good depth, and excellent coaching, look for the Bucks to build on last year’s 22-9 record. Another 20+ win season is in the cards, and if all goes well a return trip to the Final Four isn’t out of the question.
The first step toward that goal is the game against North Carolina on Thursday night. UNC lost a lot of production in Tyler Hansbrough and Ty Lawson, but seniors Marcus Ginyard and Deon Thompson will lead another talented group this season. UNC is a favorite to win the ACC and should remain in the Top 10 all year long. For a complete team preview fo the Tarheels, go here.
The Tarheels are in a bit of a rebuilding mode…as much as the program ever has to rebuild, that is. In Chapel Hill, it’s something closer to reloading. However, the change in personnel should give OSU the edge in experience, and while this will be a hard-fought game, it is winnable for the Buckeyes. Whatever the outcome, the game will serve as an excellent litmus test for both of these teams.
Look for Matta to allow Turner to control the pace of the game, which should be up-tempo for the full 40 minutes. The Buckeyes will need to limit Ginyard’s impact defensively and have to keep UNC away from offensive rebounds. Without Hansbrough, the ‘Heels will need to establish a new inside presence, and Ohio State must work to make sure that doesn’t happen in this matchup.
If the team plays well and can escape with a victory, its reward will be another Top 25 matchup. At the risk of looking ahead, a win in the 2K Sports Classic would be a tremendous lift to the team’s confidence, and could propel them to a stellar season. Of course, there’s no shame in losing to UNC, and at the very least Thad Matta will have a better idea of where his team stands after this weekend is over.