August 26, 2014

Buckeye Basketball Preview: Buckeyes Must Look To Defense, Team Effort To Contend For Title

Jared Sullinger and William Buford were two program fixtures. When you look at OSU basketball in a time capsule someday, they will be two of the greatest players of the Thad Matta era, undeniably a part of one of OSU’s best runs in program history.

Buford was a part of 3 Big Ten regular season championships, 2 conference tournament championship teams, and a Final Four Trip while finishing tied for third on OSU’s All-Time scoring list. Buford toggled between having his name uttered alongside profanities and being celebrated for his big shots and performances (think Duke, Purdue, and the regular season finale vs. Michigan State and that unbelievable shot to grab a share of the B1G championship), amassing an astounding accumulation of statistics in his four seasons.

Sullinger accomplished plenty in his two years, sharing those championships and tourney trips with Buford along with becoming a first-team All-American and Wooden award finalist his sophomore season. With the exception of Greg Oden, no one exuded the larger than life campus presence like the Columbus native did.

The Ohio State Buckeyes enter the season ranked fourth and are picked to finish third in a cutthroat Big Ten that includes top five teams Indiana and Michigan, who lost few key contributors, in addition to Michigan State and Wisconsin who are ranked to start the season as well. In losing Sullinger and Buford, OSU looks to replace 64 minutes and 32 points per game, but they won’t look to directly replace those aforementioned program pillars. Instead, they’ll rely heavily on two pillars still planted in Columbus and look to improve in certain aspects where the last installment of the Buckeyes came up short.

The primary area where I think this team could improve over last year’s squad is on the defensive end. Make no mistake, the Buckeyes were a very strong defensive unit (ranking 2nd in Ken Pomeroy’s rating system last season behind only Louisville), led by the returning point guard silencer Aaron Craft. But, Sullinger and Buford were both below average defenders, though it was for different reasons. While I blame Buford’s lack of defensive ability on his thin frame and tendency to lose focus at times, the story was a much different one for Sully. At any level of basketball, the man in the middle draws the most focus from the officiating crew. Being the last line of defense and the most physically imposing players, the whistles can come in a flurry for big guys.

Sullinger was no different. In 21 Big Ten conference games (including the B1G Tourney), Sullinger collected four fouls or more in 10 of those games. In 8 of those conference games, he logged under 30 minutes. Subject officiating creeped into several games that could have decided not only the conference regular season title and Big Ten Tournament, but the NCAA tournament as well. The Buckeyes nearly went home at the hands of Dion Waiters and his Orange thanks to two quick whistles on Sullinger three minutes into the game. Two quick fouls, usually one of the offensive variety, and #0 would often be doomed to wait out the remaining minutes until intermission next to Matta. It’s a major issue with the college game, and I would be in favor of adding a sixth foul for this reason. It’s also why I think Sullinger will be able to carve out a nice role in the NBA with the focus off of him.

That big man on campus attention, from the media, from opponents, and from fans put a lot of pressure on Sullinger to perform up to expectations. Through it all, the Buckeyes captured a share of the regular season title, came up a few possessions short against Michigan State in the Big Ten title game, and realized their goal of making it to New Orleans for the Final Four, coming up just another possession short against Kansas in the semis.

Fast forward to present day and the Buckeyes are very much headlined by two dynamic players who can dominate opposite sides of the ball. Defensively, it’s Craft, who many recognize as the nation’s best on-ball defender. It’s Craft’s pesky hustle and talent to attach himself to a defender without fouling that drives opponents wild. Offensively, it’s Thomas, the 6’7” forward with inside knack and outside touch (15.9 points, 5.4 rebounds), capable of dropping 30 points on any given night. While these two returning starters will undoubtedly headline the team and be the reason for their relevancy, there are far less known commodities that will fill out the remaining chapters of the book, ultimately deciding whether it’s a year of regression for the Buckeyes or a reload and another push for Big Ten and NCAA hardware.

Let’s start with two second-year players in guard Shannon Scott (1.2 points, 1.7 assists) and center Amir Williams (1.7 points, 2.1 rebounds, 0.8 blocks). Both highly-ranked recruits (Scott 34th in ESPNU 100, Williams 43rd), both struggled for playing time last season, and the duo of sophomores will be expected to fill a much larger role in the ’12-’13 campaign. While Scott adequately ran the point and defended on the perimeter when Craft was in foul trouble, his offensive game was laughable and his defender would sag, daring him to shoot jumpers. Williams, you may recall, played a big role in the Syracuse Elite 8 game, filling in for the duo of Sullinger and Ravenel. Other than that game, Williams blocked some shots, grabbed some rebounds, but did so with a relatively frail frame and green offensive game. Their improvement will be vital to the Ohio State cause, especially on the defensive end. Sullinger did not block shots, so the Buckeyes will now have their shot-blocking presence they missed following the departure of Dallas Lauderdale in Amir.

When it comes to filling the wing scoring lost with Buford’s departure, some of it will come from Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Sam Thompson. Smith Jr. had a breakout sophomore season, solidifying himself as the fifth starter for Coach Matta and averaged 11 points per game in the tournament, scoring in double digits six of his last ten games. With a dynamic gift to run the floor and finish combined with a respectable three-point shot, Smith has room to grow. Thompson could be the highest flyer on the team at 6’7″, and he could be looked to fill a similar role offensively as the fourth or fifth option as Smith Jr. did last season.

The man everyone is talking about though with the potential to replace a bulk of the offensive output is sophomore LaQuinton Ross. Ross was explosive in the short bursts that we saw him last season, showing the ability to fire from anywhere inside halfcourt. An academic eligibility issue left him months behind his teammates and planted on the bench for meaningful games. He could immediately fill the role that Thomas did two seasons ago off the bench as a sixth or seventh man that carried his team to victory on more than one occasion. By mid-season, however, it’s likely he’ll be starting (or getting starters’ minutes anyway) and there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be the second-leading scorer on this team behind Thomas.

Back to that defensive improvement, with the shot blocker Williams, a big in Ravenel who is a solid body at the five spot (he played out of position last year), the one-man menace that is Aaron Craft, and athletic wings (Smith Jr., Thompson, and Scott all fit this description) who can keep up laterally with the best in the Big Ten, the Buckeyes will look to overcome any lack of interior scoring and three-point shooting shortcomings (freshman Amadeo Della Valle should help there off the bench) by playing games in the fifties and low sixties. With an admittedly deeper bench, Matta may play nine guys consistently and look to play the transition game more without the low post anchor to feed the ball to down low.

No team advances to the Final Four, however, without that star power on some level. Whereas past teams led by iconic big men in Oden and Sullinger have failed, it will be on the forward Thomas to take his consistency and scoring output to an entirely different level. Deshaun can collect and convert on the offensive glass, scorch the nets from deep, and find the hoop with a mix of cuts, hooks, and spins on the block. The problem is when the inevitable box and one or double team comes, can Craft, Smith Jr., and the rest hit open shots.

Defensive expertise, turnover margin domination, and superior athleticism. That’s the recipe for the Buckeyes to have success all season, at the Big Ten tournament in Chicago, and to get down to Atlanta. While I fully admit the Buckeyes are a touch overrated to start, few thought this team would reach New Orleans halfway through last season.

You can see above that Craft has the O covered and Thomas has accounted for the H, but tonight, the question of who steps in for the “I-O” will begin to be answered against Marquette on an aircraft carrier docked in Charleston Harbor.