Ohio State picked to win Big Ten hoops title
ROSEMONT, Ill. (AP)
Thad Matta was quick to point out his toughest year as Ohio State's coach came right after the Buckeyes' best season under him, so his optimism was of the cautious variety.
Make no mistake, expectations are high at the moment.
Not only are the Buckeyes coming off back-to-back Big Ten championships and Sweet 16 appearances, but All-American Jared Sullinger is returning after leading them to 34 wins a year ago. It was no surprise that he was selected the league's preseason Player of the Year and that Ohio State was picked to win the conference in the preseason media poll, yet Matta couldn't help but think back to 2007-08.
The Buckeyes were coming off a 35-win season and NCAA Finals appearance with stars like Greg Oden and Mike Conley, but a year later, they went 24-13, finished fifth in the conference and settled for an NIT championship.
''I think our guys had a sense of entitlement that they were going to win basketball games, and I think that taught not only the coaches but the players a strong lesson,'' Matta said Thursday at the Big Ten's basketball media day.
''Getting these guys to understand there's no entitlement from last year's team to winning, they've got work to do,'' Matta said. I think that's been the beauty of coaching them to this point - they understand that.''
The Buckeyes probably don't need too many reminders from their coach.
''I don't enjoy the underdog role because I think our program is to the point where you don't want to be there, but I'm enjoying the challenge of realizing we lost a lot,'' said Spartans coach Tom Izzo, coming off a 19-win season. ''The Delvon thing really set us back, too, because he was an experienced guy; he was a great defender. But I love the enthusiasm with this team.''
Robbie Hummel is back for Purdue, and the Boilermakers are hoping his ACL problems are a thing of the past and that his return can ease the loss of JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore to the NBA. If he stays healthy, they could be trouble. But the words ''healthy'' and ''Hummel'' have rarely wound up in the same sentence the past two years.
He was second on the team with 15.7 points and 6.9 rebounds per game before tearing the ACL in his right knee two years ago. He had surgery and expected to play last season, but sat out after injuring his knee in practice in October. He had another surgery a month later, worked out with noted trainer Tim Grover in Chicago in the offseason and is ready to play again.
Is he 100 percent?
Hummel said his knee is fine, but he's still not quite as explosive. He believes he's close, though, and will get there.
''I'm very certain,'' said Hummel, a first-team pick by the media along with Sullinger, Michigan State's Draymond Green, Minnesota's Trevor Mbakwe and Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor. ''Just with the workouts I've gone through, the individual workouts and practices and open gyms, I feel I am getting pretty close to that level. I don't doubt that at all. I'm just looking forward to getting out there and proving it.''
The good news for Hummel is that his game isn't necessarily based on his explosiveness. He's willing to defer, and as coach Matt Painter put it, ''I think you could stand him out there with crutches and you could still help your team win.''
Sullinger did plenty to help Ohio State last season, averaging 17.2 points and 10.2 rebounds while leading the Buckeyes to a 34-3 record. He was the Big Ten and national Freshman of the Year and an All-American, and he probably would have been one of the top picks in the draft had he not stayed in school.
''There aren't too many things he does that catch me off guard, but there are still those times where I'll take a step back and be like, `What just happened?''' Buckeyes guard Aaron Craft said. ''Jared's a one-of-a-kind type player.''
That he came back for another year was no shocker to Matta. He said Sullinger had vowed to stay ''at least two years'' and was simply keeping his word.
He returns to a team that lost three key contributors from last year - record-setting 3-point shooter Jon Diebler, versatile defender David Lighty and shot-blocker Dallas Lauderdale. The Buckeyes have one senior (four-year starting shooting guard William Buford) and just a single junior on scholarship in Boston College transfer Evan Ravenel, with everyone else either in their first and second year in the program.
But the young players are impressive, particularly Sullinger. Not only did he drop 25 pounds and gain muscle, he improved his shooting and ball-handling and is ''moving more fluidly,'' Matta said.
As impressive as Sullinger's skills might be, Painter said the mental aspect is what sets him apart.
''He's also got a high basketball IQ,'' Painter said. ''I think sometimes that gets lost in discussions when people talk about improvements. You can get better, but are you getting better at thinking the game? Jared Sullinger, his dad's a good guy, he's a good coach. He's brought him up in the game, thinking the game, and that to me causes us more problems.''