NEWARK, N.J. — The NCAA tournament provided more surprises last weekend than almost anyone could have anticipated.
It also set the stage for next year.
Ohio State’s run as No. 1 and the top overall seed is over, but the Buckeyes figure to be back around the top of the rankings next season. Jared Sullinger announced immediately after the Buckeyes’ loss to Kentucky that he would return for his sophomore season. And he means it.
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Speaking of Kentucky, the Wildcats not only are the favorites to win the national championship next weekend, but they very much figure into next year’s race, as well. Even if freshmen Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones go to the NBA, Kentucky is a team with only one senior on the current roster and master recruiter John Calipari is set to welcome the nation’s top class of freshmen. Current freshman Doron Lamb said last weekend he’ll be back, and juniors DeAndre Liggins and Darius Miller should be, too.
If Ohio State thought Kentucky was athletic and tenacious this year, wait ’til the Buckeyes see the Wildcats again.
That one Kentucky senior, Josh Harrellson, did as good a job defending Sullinger on the block as anyone did all season. Harrellson is playing his best basketball right now — as is Liggins — and will be missed, but Ohio State faces a steeper climb in replacing its outstanding senior class.
Gone are three senior starters, including fifth-year jack-of-all-trades David Lighty and the Big Ten’s all-time 3-point king, Jon Diebler. Junior William Buford is undecided about his future and could leave for the NBA. Expect Buford to at least test the waters without hiring an agent, as he should. He had a nightmare shooting night vs. Kentucky but was a steady performer all season and has three years starting experience.
Things will be different on the block for Sullinger without Lighty, Diebler and maybe Buford on the perimeter, but Sullinger might be different, too. He’ll have another summer in the weight room, another summer to work on his conditioning and add to his game. He was the nation’s best freshman and has a strong case to be national Player of the Year.
He likely won’t win it, but he won’t fret. His goal was not just to average 17 points and 10 rebounds, as he did, but to win a national championship. That the Buckeyes fell short is probably the biggest reason he’s returning.
In addition to classmate Aaron Craft returning as point guard, two more of Sullinger’s former AAU teammates, Jordan Sibert and J.D. Weatherspoon, figure to play bigger roles. Sibert probably would have played extensive minutes on almost any other team in the country this season; he just wasn’t as good as Craft. Weatherspoon, who was also Sullinger’s high school teammate, was academically ineligible for a bulk of the season but has his grades in order now. He’s not likely a starter but could provide minutes and certainly brings athleticism. Potentially, he could play either forward spot.
DeShaun Thomas, the seventh man in what was essentially a 6-1/2-man rotation this year, provides instant offense and improved at the defensive end throughout his freshman season. Buford’s status will determine just how much the Buckeyes need Thomas to score, but he’ll almost certainly be a starter and isn’t bashful about letting shots fly. He didn’t become the third-leading scorer in Indiana high school basketball history by looking to pass.
Boston College transfer Evan Ravenel should see some of the minutes of departing senior Dallas Lauderdale alongside Sullinger in the post, and Thad Matta has two McDonald’s All-Americans coming in this year’s recruiting class, Shannon Scott and Amir Williams. One thing to watch is that Craft, Sibert and Scott are all point guards, so there might be some tinkering to do and there likely will be multiple-guard lineups. Finding players to consistently knock down 3-pointers when Sullinger draws extra defenders in the post will be key.
That’s why Buford’s impending decision looms so large. He can score effectively from 10-24 feet and would be the best perimeter defender on many teams. This year, he was third on his own team behind two of the nation’s best in Lighty and Craft. He and Sullinger would form an electric 1-2 scoring punch and allow Craft to continue to flourish as a defender and distributor first. If Buford leaves, Craft will be asked to score much more than the seven points per game he scored this season.
Nationwide, Sullinger’s decision to stay is expected to be much more the exception than the rule. UConn’s one-man wrecking crew, Kemba Walker, figures to give up his final year of college. North Carolina super freshman Harrison Barnes figures to go and be drafted in the top three, and he’s one of five gifted underclassmen in the starting lineup for the team that lost to Kentucky in the regional final one game after the Wildcats knocked out Ohio State. Duke’s Kyrie Irving might be the No. 1 overall NBA pick in June, and Arizona’s Derrick Williams is also likely headed to the pros and an early selection after a monster NCAA tournament. Kansas and Texas might lose underclassmen, too.
The NBA’s impending labor issues could cause some young players to have second thoughts, but history — and money — says most of them will go. The way Knight played for Kentucky this weekend, he might be climbing draft boards and making money by the second. Jones faces a difficult decision and could be back, but he has an NBA body and figures to be tempted to at least test the waters. Thomas has an NBA body, too, and might face a decision a year from now, but he’ll back in Columbus and have every chance to blossom.
In the Big Ten, Michigan’s whole team returns and played its best basketball at the end of the season. The Wolverines should also get immediate contribution from another of Sullinger’s high school teammates, this year’s Ohio Mr. Basketball, point guard Trey Burke. Wisconsin’s Jordan Taylor faces an NBA decision, and the Badgers lose Jon Leuer. Purdue says goodbye to Big Ten Player of the Year JaJuan Johnson, and E’Twaun Moore, but will welcome Robbie Hummel back from knee surgery.
Despite what the award voting said, Sullinger was unquestionably the Big Ten’s most dominant player, and Ohio State clearly its best team. Matta has built a program that has overcome heavy personnel losses before to stay at the top of the Big Ten and near the top of the national rankings. The 2011-12 Buckeyes will have a different look and different questions to answer regardless of whether Buford stays or goes, and they certainly will have to match the athleticism of such teams as Kentucky, Texas, North Carolina and others to reach their goals next March.
That’s a long time from now, and there’s a lot to still be decided. The Buckeyes may not enter next season as No. 1, but they’ll be near the top and be a team to watch. As long as Sullinger is on the block, they have a chance.