Ohio State Basketball: 4 Candidates to Be the Buckeyes' Leader Next Season
Theoretically, every basketball team is composed of the same pieces—a head coach, a group of assistant coaches, five starters and a bench. The head coach plays the role of the chess-master, manipulating his pawns in the most strategically sound way in hopes of optimizing his chances at victory.
However, the truly special teams are led by more than their coach—especially in college basketball, where most of the participants are only a couple years removed from dancing at the prom and swapping notes in chemistry class.
Players that can assume the responsibility of on-floor coach are essential to providing a stabilizing force in tense late-game and late-season moments.
Ohio State, fresh off the graduation of William Buford and the departure of All-American Jared Sullinger, is going to need one of its players to seize this leadership position. Here are the top four candidates to do so.
Lenzelle Smith Jr.
Those who follow Ohio State basketball closely may be surprised to see Smith on this list. The once highly-touted recruit has had an underwhelming two years in scarlet and gray, even though he was a starter all last season.
However, Smith showed flashes of his immense potential at times last year, including a 28-point, seven-rebound explosion against Indiana.
Still, a handful of good regular-season games doesn’t exactly reserve you a spot on the list of potential team leaders for the next season. Instead, it was Smith’s performance during key stretches of the NCAA Tournament that should have Buckeye fans excited.
The Buckeyes had their backs against the wall at times in both the Sweet Sixteen against Cincinnati and the Elite Eight against Syracuse. Smith responded with 17 points versus the Bearcats and 18 against the Orange, fueled by a combined 60 percent shooting from downtown.
It wasn’t just the points at key moments that endeared Smith to Ohio State fans. His willingness to provide critical defense alongside turnover-machine Aaron Craft was critical.
If Smith can consistently play at the same level he did in the tournament as he enters the realms of the upperclassmen, he can provide crucial leadership for the young Buckeyes.
So let me get this straight—the same player who spent the first month of last season suspended with academic issues has a chance to be Ohio State’s leader the next year?
Yes he does, although I advise against betting the house on it.
Ross may have more pure talent than anyone else on the Buckeye roster. However, whether he realizes his potential or crashes and burns is almost entirely in his own hands.
All indications are that Ross understands this season’s importance. A successful offseason is imperative for the 6’8” forward, since he will likely be competing with Sam Thompson for a spot in the starting lineup.
Assuming that Ross can grab a starting spot, he can use his slashing abilities and lethal long-range stroke to possibly even lead the Buckeyes in scoring (with a huge emphasis on the word "possibly").
Sure, it may be a stretch to say that Ross will lead Ohio State in scoring, but if he can string together a handful of impressive early-season performances, his confidence should only improve as the season progresses.
The ability is there—now the only thing Buckeye fans are waiting on is results. True leaders often overcome adversity, and Ross has the chance to do just that.
If Deshaun Thomas matches the strides he took from freshman year to sophomore year during this offseason, then he is a primary candidate to become Ohio State’s leader.
The only real question about the Buckeyes’ top offensive player’s ability to score is how he will handle being the defense’s primary focus this season. With no more Sullinger to draw double-teams, there will be less room for Thomas to operate and fire three-point shots.
Where Thomas can really play the role of leader is by improving his ability to do things besides scoring the basketball. If Thomas brings more intensity on the defensive side of the ball, others will recognize his team-first priorities and ideally follow suit.
Thomas also needs to improve on his 5.4 rebounds a game from last year, especially since Sullinger will no longer be filling the lane.
There is no doubt Thomas will be Ohio State’s go-to scorer (unless Ross fulfills his potential). Where he can really be a leader is by putting in the work to improve the other aspects of his game, especially as an NBA future beckons.
Perhaps the name of this article should have been "three candidates besides Aaron Craft to be the Buckeyes’ leader next season." After all, there may not be a more obvious selection in all of college basketball than Craft to be the on-floor leader that every coach craves.
Need someone to put his own statistical production aside to help set up his teammates? Craft is your man. Need someone to dive for every loose ball and take charges from players seemingly twice his size? Craft is still your man.
He does everything that a coach dreams of, and he does it in the most unassuming fashion. Incredibly, he did it all last season while playing with floating bone chips that would dig into his tibia whenever he turned his ankle the wrong way.
In good news for Buckeye supporters and bad news for other Big Ten point guards, a healthy Craft should be even more tenacious on defense this season.
With the losses of Sullinger and Buford, there is no doubt whose team this is next season.
Aaron Craft is Ohio State’s man.