The Ohio State basketball team opens another season of high expectations Friday night.
Such has become the norm with that “other” sport in Columbus.
The basketball Buckeyes under Thad Matta won big on both a regional and national level. They’ve recruited and operated with sport’s big boys, too, and Matta isn’t afraid to say his program has earned the right to say it belongs on the court and in the conversation with just about anybody.
“From the standpoint of what we set out to do nine years ago, yes, we do think we’ve earned the right to be elite or however you might say it,” Matta said. “Nobody remembers where this program was when we started. I know in the last six years we’ve won 176 games and that’s just behind two schools, North Carolina and Kansas.
“We’re there. We’ve won three straight Big Ten championships and five of seven in a great conference. There are no breathers on our schedule. Staying good, consistently playing at a high level, it’s hard to do, especially when you look at what we’ve lost from a personnel standpoint at various times.”
The latest big loss is Jared Sullinger, who left after his sophomore season for the NBA. Also departed is four-year starter William Buford, leaving the Buckeyes to replace 32 combined average points of production and adapt to life without the Big Ten’s most dominant player.
Matta has brought the program to the point that he can replace one former McDonald’s All-American with another, have yet another coming off the bench and still have experienced and talented players in position to lead. Deshaun Thomas is a preseason All-American, and Aaron Craft is near the top of any discussion of the nation’s best point guards and defensive players.
“The players have done it,” Matta said. “They’ve done the work, made the improvements, kept things at a high level. They’ve done a great a job of putting this program at the top of college basketball, there’s no question about it.”
The 2012-13 team is No. 4 in the preseason Top 25, marking 41 consecutive poll weeks in which Ohio State has been in the top 10. There are more impressive numbers, too: back-to-back 30-win seasons, eight consecutive 20-win seasons and three consecutive Sweet 16 appearances.
The program has taken advantage of its big budget, big Nike contract and big-city home to recruit throughout the Midwest — plus, future recruits know the players Matta has sent to the top of the NBA Draft.
Three starters and six full-time rotation players return from last year’s team, and this year’s group figures to be deeper and more athletic than recent editions. It will likely need to be in a loaded Big Ten, which appears to be the nation’s strongest conference.
“It is going to be a great league from top to bottom, but it seems like I say that every year,” Matta said. “It’s the same thing — good teams, good coaches, you have to bring it every night. When Big Ten play starts, it’s our job to make Ohio State another tough place to play and another team capable of winning road games against very good basketball teams.”
The Buckeyes schedule like an elite program before conference play, too, with Friday’s opener in the Carrier Classic vs. Marquette, a visit to Duke and a pre-Christmas home game with Kansas among the highlights. They don’t leave Columbus in December, but will tune up for the Jayhawks with at least semi-interesting games against Long Beach State and Winthrop.
“It’s not for us as players to say if we’re elite or should be ranked in the top five or 10, but I think we deserve it,” Craft said. “We’ve played the best teams. We haven’t beaten them all, but we’ve won the Big Ten against other great teams. We were a No. 1 seed (in 2011) and made the Final Four as a No. 2 seed last year.
“I think people see and know that Ohio State is a team that’s going to be a tough out against anybody.”
Added Thomas: “The Final Four raised the bar. We have to get back. We’re aiming for that, then taking that next step.”