So far this season, Ohio State seems to be a very talented team that has yet to find their go-to scorer, and scoring as a whole has been difficult for this team. Deshaun Thomas was the guy last year in pressure situations, so finding a replacement for him will be no easy task. Their senior leader and most experienced player this year, Aaron Craft, might become the most hated player in college basketball by season's end. While all the talk is about the phenomenal crop of freshman around the country, Craft's leadership and craftiness (I had to) might very well be what elevates this Buckeye team from good to great as the season progresses. Here are my five key takeaways so far from the 2013-2014 Ohio State season so far:
#1- Life Without Deshaun
For my first point, I had to start off with the absence of #1, the Buckeyes' primary scorer last season, Deshaun Thomas. Thomas started all 37 games for a team that made the Elite 8, averaging 20 points, shooting 45% from the field, and grabbing nearly 6 boards a game. To put Thomas' impact in perspective, he attempted 584 field goals and 209 3's to get to his 20 points a game. Aaron Craft's 309 attempts was the next closest, meaning that Craft only shot 100 more total field goal attempts that Thomas shot 3-pointers. While some fans consider Thomas' decision to leave early a huge loss, others saw Thomas as a huge ball-stopper at times, much like Carmelo Anthony on the Knicks. It will be interesting to see how guys like Lenzelle Smith Jr., LaQuinton Ross, Sam Thompson and Shannon Scott pick up the scoring load along with Craft, as none of the first four players mentioned averaged double figures last year and Craft only averaged 10 points a game. So far, only Scott, Thompson and Craft are averaging better than double figures, and the gunslinging Ross is only averaging 7 points per game on 27% shooting from behind the arc. This "share-the-wealth" approach I believe will ultimately benefit the Buckeyes, as they don't have to be as reliant on one guy, like they were for many games last year. This is especially true with having a savvy veteran like Craft, a guy who you want to have the ball in his hands at the end of the game.
#2- When will we know how good this Ohio State team really is?
As is customary with Thad Matta, Ohio State plays a relatively easy non-conference schedule. The Buckeyes do not have any preseason tournaments, are not traveling to a hostile location for a tough road game, and have scheduled teams they should be able to beat for all of their home games in 2013. That being said, they travel to New York to play Notre Dame in the Gotham Classic, an excellent test between two teams ranked somewhere between the teens and low 20s in my opinion. Buckeye fans will tell me that they did go to Milwaukee and handily beat a solid Marquette team, but not much can be said for a victory in the third regular season game in November. Teams are just starting to understand their rotations, and a game in which Marquette scored 35 points and shot 1-18 from 3 is not a good indicator of Ohio State's defensive "prowess" or Marquette's inept offense. Until the Buckeyes play a more meaningful game, it will tough to assess how good this team can really be.
#3- Where do the freshman and role players fit in?
In Asher Roth's song "I Love College," he raps "Freshmen! Freshmen! Do something crazy! Do something crazy!" While this sentiment appears to ring true in other parts of the country, do not expect this Buckeyes' freshman class to come close to putting up numbers like Jabari Parker, Julius Randle or Andrew Wiggins. There are no freshman in the starting lineup, but they bring one key contributor off the bench. Marc Loving, a 6'7 forward from Toledo, Ohio, provides an explosive punch of scoring and tenacious defense, and his overall development will become especially crucial as the season progresses. Amadeo Della Valle could be a critical piece for the Buckeyes as the season goes on. Playing time wise, Della Valle might as well be a freshman, as he played sparingly for the majority of last season. This offseason, however, he has worked extremely hard at becoming a knockdown shooter. With the emphasis of more fouls being called this year, depth has become more important than ever. Most Thad Matta teams generally play only 7 or 8 players, and Della Valle is a fringe rotation player in Matta's system. If fouls pile up though, he might be called on to play 8-10 minutes and keep the game close. Della Valle could break out and become similar to a Spike Albrecht type of player, but his main purpose will be during emergency foul situations.
#4- Expect a ton of lineup versatility
While Deshaun Thomas was one of the best scorers in college basketball last year, his defense left something to be desired. Sam Thompson, LaQuinton Ross and Marc Loving are all long, athletic wings that can play anywhere from the 2 to the 4 on both offense and defense. Amadeo Della Valle and Shannon Scott play primarily in the backcourt, but have the size and speed to play 1 to 3 as well. This is especially important for Della Valle and Scott, as Aaron Craft will most likely play between 33 and 37 minutes once the Big Ten season rolls around and Scott will play about 30 minutes a game at the 2. As mentioned before, fouls will play a huge role in determining the outcome of many games until teams figure out how to adjust to the new rules. Because of this, Ohio State will need to have players comfortable at playing multiple positions. If fouls become an issue, the Buckeyes have the luxury of being able to play Ross at the 2 in big lineups or at the 4 in small-ball lineups. Depending on these foul situations, this will be a huge asset going forward.
#5- Don't panic, it's only November!
This can be said for any team, but especially for Big Ten teams. Ohio State is going to look rusty against teams they should absolutely beat. The competitive edge isn't quite there yet, the players are still learning how to gel together, and playing Wyoming just isn't the same as playing Michigan. With that being said, Thad Matta understands the importance of playing mediocre teams to learn more about his rotation players, and giving minutes to guys who desperately need to increase their confidence. I would like to see Ross play more than the 22 minutes a game he has played so far. I think he will be the second most crucial player behind Craft, and with his size and ability to stretch the defense, he could pose nightmare matchups down the road. This Ohio State team has all the tools for a deep run, they just need to get everyone on the same page. And yes, Buckeye fans, football season is still here. Worry about Braxton Miller and co. for now, because come January, your Buckeye team on the hardwood will emerge as a very dangerous team.
(As a Michigan student and a diehard Michigan basketball fan, it pains me to have to write about the Scarlet and Grey for my first post. )
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