High hopes for Buckeye hoops

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Ohio State’s basketball team held its annual media day Thursday and will officially begin practice Friday.

It should be another productive winter for the Buckeyes. If things go well, it could be another winter that becomes spring with a trip to the Final Four. That kind of talent is on hand, headlined by scorer-from-all-angles Deshaun Thomas and point guard Aaron Craft. Both are among the best in the country at what they do.

Among the other returning talent: Swingman Lenzelle Smith Jr., who hit some big shots during the NCAA tournament run; post men Evan Ravenel and Amir Williams, who will be asked for more boxscore production now that Jared Sullinger is gone; freakishly athletic wing Sam Thompson, speedy backup point guard Shannon Scott and shooter LaQuinton Ross, who couldn’t cut the rotation last season but is a gifted scorer and might not be a secret for long.

The Buckeyes are deep — and potentially dangerous. Below are five issues they must tackle and questions they’ll have to answer as the season progresses.

1. Expectations are high, and they should be.

It’s coach Thad Matta’s ninth year, and with three straight Big Ten titles and a Final Four showing last year this program has arrived at the level that nothing less than another league title and deep tournament run will count as succcess. Craft is one of the nation’s best on-ball defenders and leaders, as well as the type of guy who just does what his team needs. This season, that could mean scoring more, or it could mean playing in essentially a double-point guard backcourt with Scott. Matta eventually will settle on a rotation, Thomas will get used to playing without Sullinger being the defensive focal point and a team that’s used to winning big games will probably win a bunch of them again.  

2. For two years, the Buckeyes leaned on Sullinger. What happens now that he’s gone?

Thomas, a gifted scorer and volume shooter, will have the green light. He did last season, too, and averaged 16 points per game, but this year will be different. Matta is blessed with a variety of players who can score inside and out, and if Ross can join Smith to provide legitimate 3-point shooting threats, the Buckeyes should be able to score with anybody. The main question regarding the shape of the team might not be answered for a while. If Ravenel and Williams earn their minutes and Thomas wants to take smaller defenders to the block, the Buckeyes could become a team that wins in the paint. The Buckeyes could also go small and fast and pressure opponents all over the floor with Craft and Scott.

3. Three starters return, and a bunch of other guys are tired of waiting their turn. Who starts?

Matta said Thursday he has promised his players only that the five best defensive players will start, and he’s clearly eager to see how his players compete for those coveted starting jobs and minutes in the preseason. The Buckeyes play another tough pre-conference schedule that will make for great evaluation, and if Smith can continue to display the confidence he showed last March he’ll not only remain a starter but could become the second scoring option. Ravenel started the three games Sullinger missed last season and was the first big man off the bench, and he’s probably the favorite to start in the post. Both Thompson and Scott figure to compete for the fifth spot, but at this point anything is possible.

4. College basketball is a young man’s game, but the Buckeyes are old enough to be a tough out.

There is no blue-chip freshman stud, but only because the ones the Buckeyes were chasing ended up going elsewhere. Finishing second place is no good in recruiting, but these young guys want to go somewhere and be The Man — and Thomas staying assured that wouldn’t happen here. Thomas said he was “very close” to going to the NBA, by the way, but is eager to show a more well-rounded game in his third and probably last season in Columbus. The Buckeyes have just one senior for the second straight season but have plenty of big-game experience in Craft, Thomas, Smith and are blessed with blue-chip talent in the likes of Ross, Scott and Williams, players who need more big-stage experience but also may just need opportunity to take off.

5. Last season wasn’t easy, but it may pay dividends in the future.

Remember when Sullinger was whining about the officials, his back was hurting and team chemistry was a mess? The Buckeyes turned that January rut into a positive, becoming a tighter and tougher team in the season’s biggest games. Craft can be the glue, Thomas can be the headliner and the competition for minutes should bring out the best in the rest of the team. There are certainly big shoes to fill; Sullinger and William Buford averaged a combined 32 points, 14 rebounds and four assists a game, and those numbers don’t take into account what Sullinger’s presence alone did for other players and how good the good streaks really were for the streaky Buford, who was also a very good defender. Smith can account for some of those points and defense, Ross could blossom as a shooter and if the Buckeyes can rebound and use their defense to create easy buckets, they’ll be right back in the mix in a loaded Big Ten and the kind of tested, polished team nobody wants to see in March.