It’s time to turn over a new leaf for the Ohio State basketball program. For the first time since 2007, the Buckeyes will be without the services of William Buford, who (despite some inconsistent play in his senior year) finished his career as one of four players in Ohio State history to accumulate more than 1,000 points, 500 rebounds and 300 assists.
Throw in the fact that All-American Jared Sullinger will be wearing Celtic green next year, and the outside observer could be forgiven for assuming the 2012-13 Buckeyes may be in a rebuilding mode.
But they won’t be—not in Columbus and not coming off of the school’s 11th Final Four appearance. Throw in the fact that there is still plenty of talent left over in Thad Matta’s cupboard, and there is reason for optimism.
As is the case with almost any Matta-coached team, the burden of next year’s success will rest primarily on the shoulders of the starting lineup.
With that in mind, what will the Buckeyes’ starting lineup look like next season?
You can bet the house on one thing—barring any type of injury or setback from his offseason surgery, Aaron Craft will be running the show from his point guard position. Craft is the locomotive engine of the Ohio State Express and one of the primary reasons Buckeye fans should be excited for the upcoming year.
It is no secret why Mr. Craft is such a fan favorite among Buckeye Nation. If a 5-Hour Energy drink could play basketball, it would be Aaron Craft.
He is seemingly always the first one to a loose ball, doesn't hesitate to dive head-first into the crowd and is constantly prepared to draw the charge—no matter how big the opponent. The 2.5 steals per game he put up last year do not even begin to tell the story of how effective and disruptive he is on defense.
With the departures of Sullinger and Buford, Craft will have to assume an even larger leadership role than he had last year. If that means mixing in more offense, as he did at times in the NCAA Tournament, with his Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year defense, the Buckeyes will be in good hands.
Craft’s backcourt mate in the starting lineup will be Lenzelle Smith Jr. Smith put up respectable numbers in his first year as a full-time starter (6.8 points, 4.6 rebounds and two assists per game), but will be expected to carry a heavier load in 2012-13.
While Ohio State fans focused much of their ire on the inconsistent play of Buford, it was perhaps Smith that was the biggest wild-card all season. He displayed flashes of his potential, such as his 28 point and seven rebound performance in a top-ten showdown with Indiana, but went extended stretches of games without hardly a contribution.
But it was Smith’s performance in the NCAA Tournament that should give Buckeye fans confidence. In each of Ohio State’s final three games, Smith scored in double figures and played an integral role in victories over Cincinnati (17 points, five rebounds and two steals) and Syracuse (18 points.)
Without Smith’s efforts in those two games, the Buckeyes would not have reached the Final Four. With a full season under his belt, the consistency Smith showed at the end of last year should carry over to 2012-13.
In addition to Smith and Craft, the other returning constant to Matta’s starting lineup will be Deshaun Thomas. While nothing may have been able to take the sting away from the Buckeyes’ late-game collapse against Kansas, Thomas’ decision to stay in school certainly made the pill easier to swallow for Ohio State fans.
Thomas is an essential piece to Thad Matta’s starting lineup. It is hard to tell where the scoring would have consistently come from had Thomas followed Sullinger to the NBA.
The left-hander is a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses, thanks to his ability to put the ball on the floor, post-up smaller defenders, shoot the three and crash the offensive glass. Craft, with his defense and leadership, may be the locomotive engine, but Ohio State would find itself middling below the likes of Indiana and Michigan in the Big Ten without Thomas’ offensive production.
This is where the starting lineup prognostication gets tricky. The return of Craft, Thomas and Smith provides Matta with some stability, but there still remains two other spots to fill. How Matta and the Buckeyes handle these two holes left behind by Sullinger and Buford will go a long way in determining the ultimate outcome of the season.
One way to look at the last two spots in the starting lineup is a risk-benefit analysis. Matta could take the somewhat ‘safer’ route and start the two Buckeyes that saw significant playing time last year—Sam Thompson in Buford’s forward role and Evan Ravenel in Sullinger’s spot down low.
The reason these selections can be considered safe, in addition to the experience factor, is that Matta knows what he will generally get from both players.
Ravenel will take up space inside, contribute on the glass, provide solid interior defense and occasionally find the basket on the offensive side. If you put each of these factors together into one package, it is certainly nothing to sneeze at—just ask Dallas Lauderdale.
As for Thompson, Matta will receive superior athleticism and a formidable defensive presence. He doesn't bring much else to the table, but when the athleticism turns into a high-flying dunk display, it is certainly exciting.
On the other hand, they say the greatest risk in life is not taking one. Not to take anything away from Thompson and Ravenel, but it would serve Ohio State well if Matta took the riskier route and elected to fill the remaining two spots with those with the highest potential ceiling—LaQuinton Ross and Amir Williams.
Neither received much playing time last season. Ross never climbed out of Matta’s doghouse after his early academic troubles, and Williams struggled to find playing time behind an All-American. But that doesn't mean the potential isn't there.
Ross, who was a highly-touted recruit, has a deadly three-point shot and the ability to slash in the lane. At 6’7”, this is an almost un-guardable combination when utilized effectively.
Williams was a McDonald’s All-American coming out of high-school and stands out for his shot-blocking and rebounding potential. While he did not have much of a chance to demonstrate it last year, Williams did catch the national media’s eye in Ohio State’s Elite Eight victory over Syracuse.
Were it not for Williams’ critical contributions after Sullinger left with foul trouble, there likely would have been more orange in the Final Four crowd.
While they each present somewhat of an unknown, Ross and Williams bring better all-around games than Ravenel and Thompson and should find their names in the starting lineup.
With the 6’11” Williams taking up space down low, Thomas will have more room to operate and the ability to shoot over smaller defenders. Moreover, if Craft is penetrating the lane, the Buckeyes will be much better off with Ross camping out as the kick-out option behind the three-point line.
So there you have it. Ohio State will begin its quest to defend its co-Big Ten championship and spot in the Final Four with the starting lineup of Aaron Craft, Lenzelle Smith Jr., LaQuinton Ross, Deshaun Thomas and Amir Williams.
The season will be here before we know it.