NCAA Men's College Basketball: 5 Reasons Ohio State Can Return to the Final Four
When sophomore post player Jared Sullinger lumbered off the floor in New Orleans following Ohio State's painful 64-62 loss to Kansas in the 2012 Final Four, he didn't carry the Buckeyes' chances of returning to national prominence with him. It will certainly be hard for coach Thad Matta to replace the All-American power forward (who willl likely take his talents to the NBA). However, Matta welcomes back gritty point guard Aaron Craft, guard Lenzelle Smith Jr., and, most likely, sophomore forward Deshaun Thomas, who emerged as a potential future All-American with his outstanding play during Ohio State's run to the Final Four.
True, the Buckeyes also lose senior forward William Buford, who leaves as the school's No. 3 all-time scorer. But Buford's play was so up-and-down this season, it would not be a stretch to say that his returning teammates have already learned to compensate without having the 6'6" forward on the floor.
And it's not like teams don't get better sometimes when a prominent All-American leaves. Check your history books. In 1983, the Virginia Cavaliers were one of the most dominant teams in the country, led by center Ralph Sampson. Guess where the Cavaliers ended up at the end of the 1984 season? The Final Four.
Crafty Point Guard
Thad Matta doesn't have to worry about starting point guard Aaron Craft leaving early for the riches of the NBA. And you can never underestimate the value of a great point guard in the college game, especially one like Craft, who will have a full season as a starter under his belt.
Craft emerged as one of the top defensive guards in the country, and with an offseason in the gym, he will likely improve his perimeter game. Kraft averaged 8.8 points, 4.6 assists, and 2.5 steals per game in 2011-12. All of those numbers should climb during Craft's junior campaign.
Deshaun Thomas may have fizzled in the Buckeyes Final Four loss to Kansas as he struggled with his outside shot and was plagued by foul trouble.
But his play up until that game during the tournament keyed the Buckeyes run. Thomas still could decide to leave Columbus for a lucrative NBA contract, according to The Plain Dealer. But another year of seasoning could do wonders for the 6'7" forward who has become a strong offensive rebounder. Thomas averaged 21.7 points per game in Ohio State's first four tournament wins and will likely be a preseason All-American if he returns.
The Human Eraser: Amir Williams
Remember what Jeff Withey's shot-blocking ability meant for Kansas this year? Well, Amir Williams has the ability to develop into the same kind of defensive force. He averaged just under a block per game while averaging only six minutes per contest as a freshman.
The 6'10'' Williams provided the Buckeyes with a glimpse of the future when he contributed valuable minutes for Ohio State in its East Regional win over Syracuse when Jared Sullinger was forced to sit down with foul trouble. Look for him to become a double-digit scorer and rebounder as his minutes increase. Williams can run the floor and could help the Buckeyes become an uptempo team when paired with Aaron Kraft and Deshaun Thomas.
The Warrior: Lenzelle Smith Jr.
Lenzelle Smith Jr. came up huge in the Buckeyes' East Regional Final win over Syracuse when he scored 18 points and hit several key baskets.
Smith averaged 6.8 points per game, but expect that number to increase for the 6'4'' guard.
Smith isn't the only one whose numbers should increase. Shannon Scott, a 6'1'' sophomore-to-be guard, averaged just over a point a game, but the son of former NBA guard Charlie Scott should develop into a solid contributor.
Sam Thompson, a 6'7'' sophomore-to-be, displayed a flair for the spectacular when got on the court. He should continue to get better and could be one of the more dynamic players in the Big Ten in 2012-13.
Thad Matta is known as a super recruiter. Some have criticized him as not being the best in-game coach. Matta did a masterful job of coaching this season, motivating a team that seemed on the verge of imploding into a cohesive unit that ended up making its second trip to the Final Four since 2007. He's complied a record of 323-96 in 12 seasons of coaching for a winning percentage of 77 percent.
Some may say Matta can't win the big one, but remember Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski took his Duke teams to four Final Fours before winning his first title.