Hopes high for Buckeyes' men's basketball season
In an otherwise dreary 11 months at Ohio State filled with NCAA problems, a bit of salvation could be just around the corner.
The men's basketball team of coach Thad Matta is coming off a sterling 34-3 record and has three stars back. The Buckeyes held their media day on Thursday and - unlike their football brethren who are 3-3 and down in the dumps - were joking about the lofty expectations surrounding the team.
''It's a motivational thing when a fan comes up to you and says, 'You have to win this year','' star forward Jared Sullinger said. ''It's like all the spotlights are on us for the first time. It's like, whoa. Let me step back, it's a shocker.''
Basketball players have long been second-tier celebrities on campus while any football player - starting quarterback or long-snapper - is adored wherever they go.
But in a year when football players have continually gotten in trouble with either the NCAA or the law, the darlings of Ohio State fans are suddenly the guys who play inside at Value City Arena.
''Oh, yeah, the expectations are high,'' forward Deshaun Thomas said. ''We can be really, really great. This team we've got right here, it can be an NCAA champion. This team can accomplish more than even what everybody thinks.''
That's hard to fathom. Last year's team won its first 24 games to climb to undisputed No. 1 and conjure up thoughts of Indiana's unbeaten season in 1976. The Buckeyes lost two road games at NCAA-bound teams, Wisconsin and Purdue, while clinching first the Big Ten's regular-season and then tournament titles. They coasted through the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, winning by an average of 31 points, before running into a red-hot Kentucky team that hung a stinging 62-60 loss on the Buckeyes.
Gone from that team are three mainstays: record-setting 3-point shooter Jon Diebler, versatile defender David Lighty and shot-blocker extraordinaire Dallas Lauderdale.
This year's version of the Buckeyes includes only one senior (four-year starting shooting guard William Buford) and just a single junior scholarship player (Boston College transfer Evan Ravenel). Everybody else is either in their first or second year in the program.
But, oh, how good those youngsters are. Sullinger was an All-American a year ago as a callow freshman. In the offseason, he pared 25 pounds off his frame and added a lot of muscle. Now he says he has more stamina, is more mobile and retains his same brutish play around the boards and the paint.
Joining him in the frontcourt are some intriguing possibilities.
Thomas is 6-foot-7 but never saw a jumper he wouldn't take. He grew into a dependable offense-energizer in the stretch run and says he's improved his defense this year so he can step into the starting lineup.
Freshmen Amir Williams (6-11), Sam Thompson (6-7) and Trey McDonald (6-8) could offer instant help inside, along with Ravenel (6-8) and J.D. Weatherspoon (6-6), a high-school teammate of Sullinger's at Columbus' Northland High School under Jared's dad, Satch Sullinger.
After a year wowing people as the Buckeyes' first player off the bench, Aaron Craft takes over on the point where he could be paired with Georgia high school phenom Shannon Scott - the son of former NBA and North Carolina Tar Heels star Charlie Scott.
Jordan Sibert and Lenzelle Smith Jr. will likely see plenty of action off the bench.
Matta recognizes that Ohio State's fans have a lot invested in his team.
''The one thing I've learned in eight years at Ohio State is these people have great passion for this university,'' he said. ''They want this university to do well. There's been a couple of bumps along the way. But our mindset doesn't change from the standpoint of, we're always going to try to put the best product out on the floor that we possibly can. And try to attempt to do the things that we're supposed to to make the university proud.''
The Buckeyes open practice at 5 p.m. on Friday. Their first game is Nov. 11 against Wright State. They have two titanic early-season battles coming up against Duke and Kansas before beginning conference play.
Ticket sales have been brisk. A lot of people are talking about the Buckeyes.
But Sullinger knows that, still, basketball probably remains No. 2 to King Football.
''The football team is special. Regardless, we came to a football school,'' Sullinger said. ''With (Buckeyes fans) coming to us and saying they're looking at us as their savior, it means a lot to us.''
Follow Rusty Miller on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/rustymillerap.