The Buckeye basketball squad improved to 4-0 last night with a 85-50 win over the North Florida Ospreys in The Schott. The scarlet and gray also blew out Jackson State 85-41 on Friday night at home. Halfway through their four game cupcake schedule between tough early season tests against Florida and Duke, Thad Matta’s bunch is still finding its way with young personnel adjusting to new roles. Here are some of my thoughts on where the Buckeyes stand four games in.
1. I’m still getting used to just how different this year’s and last year’s teams are. Last year’s team was full of upperclassmen, annihilated teams from beyond the arc, and maintained a very short bench due to 32+ minutes from four players. With Lighty, Diebler, and Lauderdale gone, the leaders on this team are now sophomores Aaron Craft and Jared Sullinger. This team’s offensive approach is quite different at the season’s outset, and the bench has potential to be much deeper.
2. After making 42.3$ of their three pointers last season, the Bucks are just 16-for-61 in their first four games (26.2%), and Jordan Sibert is the only one hitting triples with much success (5-for-13). William Buford (4-for-14) and Deshaun Thomas (2-for-11) should heat up eventually, but it’s apparent that this team will not make a living behind the three-point line.
3. Where this team can improve upon last year’s offense is with raw athleticism, dribble penetration, and the transition game. Between J.D. Weatherspoon, Sam Thompson, and Lenzelle Smith Jr., the Buckeyes have a trio of slashers who run the floor well and are capable of throwing down highlight reel dunks. Last year, the Buckeyes would bog down on offense and strictly shoot contested threes or throw it in to Sullinger, often because Craft was the only one willing to drive. Attacking the middle of the paint not only will lead to higher percentage shots, it will open up Sullinger down low for offensive rebounds and free up shooters too.
4. Another place where this team has improved is forcing turnovers and scoring off of those turnovers. The Bucks have forced 90 turnovers in their four games, and the Ospreys turned it over 23 times last night. Aaron Craft leads the team with 14 steals, and the team is averaging nearly 11 per game (7 per game last season). With that increased speed on the perimeter comes the ability to get hands into the passing lanes, and no one in college basketball is more capable of that than Craft.
5. Remembering to keep Sullinger involved can be difficult at times. In last night’s game, Buford and Thomas dominated the ball at first, and Sully didn’t score until 9:26 left in the first half, missing his first two shot attempts. From that point on, Sully poured in 16 points before the halftime buzzer as he touched the ball on nearly every possession. Not coincidentally, the Bucks pulled away from the Ospreys to go on a 26-12 run to finish out the half. Sullinger finished with 27 points and 13 rebounds.
6. One year ago, the Buckeyes’ go-to play was Diebler and Sullinger on the same side of the court. This season, when they really need a basket, I think they will be going into the post to Sullinger and Thomas. Sullinger has become a master at handling double teams nearly every time he walks out on the court, and he still manages to get good looks and draw fouls. Thomas, meanwhile, is much more of a wild card. He can get his shot out of the short corner, on the block, or with a finish on a short drive to the hoop. Thomas was the better foul shooter of the two last season (79%), but Sullinger is off to a great start, as his free throw percentage currently sits at 89.1% (33-for-37).
7. My favorite role player so far? Lenzelle Smith Jr. In a starting role, he has done the little things well, starting with his defense. He had his best game of the season last night, contributing 7 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, and 3 steals in 24 minutes. Smith gets out in transition as well as anyone on the team, and he can lead the break with the ball in his hands as well. His downside? 1-of-6 from the line on Monday and 4-of-15 on the season. He could lose time to Jordan Sibert down the stretch because of it.
8. Thad Matta’s second unit continues to be a work in progress. While there has been plenty of talk (and rightfully so) about the freshman class, none of them have played extensively when the games have been close. Tonight, the unit of Shannon Scott, Sibert, Sam Thompson, Weatherspoon, and Amir Williams allowed the lead to slip to just 21 and forced Matta to bring his starters back in the game with 10:33 remaining. I think line changes with five bench players will so rarely be used by Matta this season that it’s hard to be too critical of the freshmen. However, they will need to be able to give effective minutes playing alongside some of the more experienced Buckeyes.
9. I just don’t know how much time he will get once the Buckeyes get into the Big Ten conference schedule, but J.D. Weatherspoon is fun to watch. If you thought Deshaun was instant offense last season, he’s got nothing on ‘Spoon. In 27 minutes so far, Weatherspoon has 17 points, including a posterizing alley-oop dunk in each of the three games he’s played.
10. What is the type of matchup that scares me most for this team? Normally, it would be a team with a dominant big man that can draw fouls on Sullinger. However, with Evan Ravenel, Thomas, and especially Williams able to stoutly defend on the block, I feel good about that type of a game. The type of player that can hurt the Buckeyes the most in my opinion is a stretch four that can hit three pointers, because I think the team will struggle to find a capable defender there between Thomas, Ravenel, and Weatherspoon all season, as we saw in the Florida contest.