Thad Matta will be entering his 10th year as the head coach for the Ohio State Buckeyes in 2013-14. For all those who are uncultured heathens, the 10-year anniversary is commonly referred to as the "tin anniversary" (who am I kidding, I had to look that up). According to this website, "the pliability of tin is a symbol of how a successful marriage needs to be flexible and durable and how it can be bent without being broken." I know that's beautiful, but it's a very good analogy for Thad Matta's tenure at Ohio State.
Hear me out. Thad Matta has coached some historically great teams. But his greatest skill has been his ability to transition from one "era" to the next without a hitch. There was the Greg Oden-Mike Conley Jr. era. That turned into the Evan Turner-William Buford-Mark Titus era. Then it became the Jared Sullinger-Deshaun Thomas-Aaron Craft era. He's been very flexible with his players (like tin!), and has replenished his program as great talents left for the NBA year after year. But this good thing about this Buckeye team is that he's only losing one important contributor: this guy.
So Thad's got some work to do. But this year's team has plenty of experience, yet still is full of potential, which is a lethal combination (like the reaction of Tin and Sellenium - sorry).
Now that we've looked in exhausting detail at the frontcourt and backcourt for this year's Buckeyes, let's take a look at the projected starters.
Ohio State returns 4 out of their 5 starters, which is kind of unusual for a team that's a legitimate championship threat. That's a great sign for the Buckeyes, as it provides some much-needed stability. The rotation will look basically the same as last year, but as expected, LaQuinton Ross will replace Deshaun Thomas. Here's what to anticipate from each starter this season.
Aaron Craft: You already know what you're gonna get from him: defense defense defense. And if you look around the rest of the B1G, there's not another point guard that could dominate him. Keith Appling of MSU is his oldest foe, and last year, Craft put up gaudy defensive numbers in both of their match-ups. Yogi Ferrell will be improved from last year, but I think Craft will use his wits to contain the Indiana guard.
Craft's key this year will be scoring. He's never been in a position in his college career where he's been asked to create his own shot. And he hasn't demonstrated that he can do it in the past either. He's talked throughout the entire offseason about improving his shooting percentages, and will need to back up that talk. I think he'll attack more, and get to the line with more frequency this year. His three-point shooting is the wildcard. If he can knock those down, watch out.
Lenzelle Smith Jr.: Smith Jr. needs to keep doing the little things, like playing defensive angles, rebounding, and making open jumpers. His rebounding could save the Buckeyes, since they need some serious help in that category. He'll use his thick 210 lb. frame to push around opposing shooting guards, and will help slow down the game to the plodding, B1G pace we all know and love. He played 27.4 minutes per game last year, and that will definitely increase this year. The Buckeyes will have the ability to play smaller lineups by using Shannon Scott in the backcourt instead of a big man. Smith Jr. will then take on a wing position and will be quite effective. He'll be the glue that will hold this team together.
Sam Thompson:Here's another guy that will play a much bigger role than last year. Sam can slam, but shooting will again be his key. He made 40.4% of his threes last season, but that's a sneakily deceptive stat. He only took 57 threes total, which comes out to 1.54 a game. Last year, he didn't need to shoot from the outside, because Deshaun Thomas played that part. That's not the case this year. I think he'll join the collective scoring effort, and become more consistent from the field. It's lucky for him that no one is looking at him to the "the guy." They're looking at Craft and LaQuinton Ross to do that. But he will step it up offensively this year.
LaQuinton Ross: Ross has a huge opportunity to succeed ahead of him. He's ranked at 26 in our ranking of the top 100 college basketball players, and I'm not convinced he's that good just yet. He looked like a new man in last year's tournament, but will he keep it up? 17.7 points a game and 50% shooting from the field is pretty unsustainable. The question for him will be how he responds to adversity this season, because it's coming. Teams will scheme around him. He'll face their top wing defender. When he slumps, will he bounce back? I think he can, but we just don't know at this point.
"We're looking for consistency over greatness. Give us consistent, solid basketball. He is in his best shape right now."
That's all Amir needs to do this season. If he can limit mental mistakes, and improve on being in the right place at the right time, the Buckeyes are set. He's not going to overpower the more talented centers in the B1G, but he has the potential to contain them. Now that he's got another year of experience under his belt, he could finally put it together and become a solid contributor.
The Buckeyes will be remarkably strong in the backcourt defensively. Mind you, scoring won't be as easy for the combination of Craft, Smith Jr., and Shannon Scott, but they will not be pushed around on D. You could make a case that the Buckeyes have the strongest defensive backcourt in the country, and I'm not saying I agree, but no other coterie of guards has this much experience and skill. It will be interesting to see them go against pure scorers like Gary Harris of Michigan State and Nik Stauskas of Michigan, two sophomores who will look to build on their strong freshmen campaigns. The Buckeyes also play teams known for strong guard play offensively during their non-conference schedule, like Notre Dame and Maryland. But on the big stage, I'm taking Craft and his buddies to shut down any guard they encounter.
For what it's worth, this team will also be strong in the dunking category. You can't just be some average Joe to earn your very own dunk montage. Slammin' Sam Thompson is far from average when it comes to dunking.
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LaQuinton Ross is equally athletic on the wing, and freshman Kam Williams was #Oucheaa (his words, not mine) during the Buckeye's Midnight Madness But Not Actually Midnight Madness On Outdoor Courts.
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All I'm saying is that highlights will not be in short order this season.
As much as I'd like it, not every point will be scored from a dunk. I know, it's a shame. That means someone will have to step up and become the go-to guy. There's been a lot of talk this offseason about who will take over the scoring load. Thad Matta has said both that he wants LaQuinton Ross to take on the bulk of the scoring, and that scoring will have to be a team effort. To be honest, I doubt Matta knows where the scoring will come from. You know he's praying Ross can make up for the absence of Thomas, but those are huge shoes to fill. It will be interesting to see the dynamic between Ross and Matta this year, especially if Ross doesn't come out of the gate scoring. Will he try to send a message by not giving him minutes in crunch time? Can he afford to do that? Let's just hope it doesn't come to that.
Oh and rebounding. Amir Williams' struggles on the boards have been discussed ad nauseam, but for good reason. He's really tall and really strong, but hasn't translated that into attractive rebounding statistics. This season will be Amir's second season as a starter, which will be a huge help. He's stated during media day that he now knows what the referees will and won't call, and will use his physicality accordingly. That's inspiring, but he's going to have to prove it on the low block against the bigs of the B1G before rebounding won't hold them back.
Look for Shannon Scott to have some mini-Victor Oladipo moments. He will use his blazing athleticism to push the ball in transition and will throw down some sweet dunks. He'll play Oladipian defense, especially when they run a full-court press, and will generally ruin the lives of opposing point guards. I'm not yet convinced that he can make jumpers with consistency, but there will be flashes on defense where he will look downright Oladipish.
I'm excited for this team. As great as Thomas was, he often was mind-numbingly frustrating. Lenzelle Smith Jr. had some very interesting remarks about a Thomas-run offense. He talked during media day about how frustrating it would be when the team would defend for 35 seconds, for Thomas to jack up a shot only "four seconds into the shot clock." According to Smith Jr., his offense created "good and bad." He's got a point. But if the best-case scenario happens where this offense turns into a balanced and efficient attack, the Buckeyes will be very dangerous. That sure is not a guarantee.
The Buckeyes will be at the top of the Big Ten this season, as usual. Michigan State is the consensus top team in the B1G so far, and they could use their physicality to manhandle the Buckeyes down low. Michigan will be an interesting matchup, because if Mitch McGary takes another step toward stardom, they will be hard to beat. They match up well against the Badgers, as they are weak down low. I'm taking Ohio State's backcourt over Wisconsin's any day, even though that's Wisconsin's the biggest asset. Indiana is a wildcard, since they've got some big men that could boom or bust. If they boom, watch out. But considering everything, the Buckeyes will be tough to beat. I smell a 3 seed in this year's NCAA tournament.
Prediction: 3rd in the Big Ten, Sweet Sixteen.