It’s hard to imagine the Ohio State basketball program returning to the Final Four after its best player and two-time All-American Jared Sullinger departed for the NBA draft.
Throw in the fact that four-year starter William Buford, who ranks among the top-10 Buckeye scorers of all time, graduated, and things may appear bleak.
But there is plenty of talent left in Thad Matta’s cupboard. If everyone plays up to his individual potential, Ohio State could certainly find itself back on college basketball’s biggest stage.
However, it’s also not much of a stretch to imagine a worst-case scenario unfolding with a young and relatively inexperienced team (outside of three returning starters there is very little game experience on the Buckeye roster) failing to live up to expectations.
While the truth for the 2012-13 season probably lies somewhere in between, here is the best- and worst-case scenario for each Buckeye starter.
Best: 12 PPG, 40% 3P, 6 APG, National Defensive Player of the Year
In this scenario, Aaron Craft continues his gradual offensive improvement.
He has never been seen as much of a scoring threat, but his points per game, field goals per game and overall field-goal percentage all increased from his freshman to sophomore year.
With the losses of Sullinger and Buford, Aaron Craft will likely look to become more of a scorer. But he will always be known for his defensive prowess.
A best-case type of season would see the defending Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year make the leap to National Defensive Player of the Year. He certainly has the national recognition after two years of harassing opposing point guards, which will only help his chances.
Worst: 8 PPG, 30% 3P, 1.5 SPG
Craft has never averaged fewer than two steals per game in his Ohio State career. However, in the worst-case scenario, opposing players will be more aware of Craft’s ball-hawking abilities (how can they not be?) and adjust accordingly.
Also, despite his improved scoring numbers, Craft’s three-point percentage decreased from year one to year two in Columbus. If this trend continues, it could spell trouble for the Buckeyes, who do not really have a deadly long-range threat.
Without Sullinger to draw defenses into the paint, Craft will not have as many open looks, so this is certainly possible.
Best: 15 PPG, 40% 3P, 5 RPG
For Lenzelle Smith Jr. to reach 15 points per game, he will need a significant jump from last season’s average of seven.
However, this increase is not as unrealistic as it may appear. Smith flashed his formidable potential at times last season, including a 28-point outburst against Indiana, 17 points in the Sweet Sixteen versus Cincinnati and 18 points in the Elite Eight against Syracuse.
With Buford and Sullinger gone, there will be many more opportunities for Smith. He just has to deliver.
Worst: 5 PPG, loses significant playing time
Perhaps no Ohio State player has as big of a gap between his best- and worst-case scenarios than Smith, because no Ohio State regular was as inconsistent as Smith was last season.
As mentioned, there were games when he was the Buckeyes’ most dangerous threat, but also plenty of other contests where he was basically invisible on the offensive side.
If Smith strings together too many poor performances, he may lose significant playing time to other shooting guards and small forwards such as LaQuinton Ross, Shannon Scott, Sam Thompson and even freshman Amedeo Della Valle.
Best: 14.5 PPG, 5 RPG, 43% 3P
If the points and rebounds look familiar to Buckeye fans, that is because they are William Buford’s numbers from last season.
Yes, Buford sometimes drew the ire of Ohio State supporters for his inconsistent play, but I don’t think it’s feasible or fair to expect LaQuinton Ross to be better than Buford in Ross’ first season as a significant contributor.
The three-point percentage is the key for Ross. Much of the hype he has received since his arrival in Columbus revolves around his long-range shooting. Thad Matta will need to see more of that this season.
Worst: 3 PPG, 35% 3P, lack of playing time
As mentioned in Lenzelle Smith’s worst-case scenario, there is somewhat of a logjam in the shooting-guard/small-forward slot for the scarlet and gray.
In fact, Ross is all too familiar with this crowd at his spot, since he spent the majority of last year on the bench (although an academic-based suspension may have had something to do with that).
If Ross does not consistently hit his three-pointers and contribute in the scoring department, he may find himself watching more of the action again.
Best: 20 PPG, 8 RPG, Big Ten Player of the Year
We know Deshaun Thomas can score. If you need validation, just look at his performance in the NCAA tournament last season (alright, ignore the Final Four loss to Kansas).
Without Sullinger in the lane, there will be more points available for the other players, particularly Thomas. Sure, he has been criticized for poor shot selection in the past, but he actually led Buckeye regulars in field-goal percentage last year.
If Thomas really wants to have a successful season, he needs to improve on the roughly five rebounds a game he averaged last campaign. The starting power forward on a Big Ten contender needs to grab more boards.
If everything comes together for the pro prospect, he will win the conference’s player of the year award and eventually parlay his success into an early NBA draft selection.
Worst: 14 PPG, 5 RPG, no defensive improvement
Even in Thomas’ worst-case scenario he scores plenty of points. He will be Ohio State’s primary scoring option and will still find the basket.
However, in this circumstance, Thomas will not improve on his defense or rebounding. A team’s best player (arguably) cannot be a liability on one side of the floor.
Don’t think NBA scouts wouldn’t notice if Thomas struggles defensively this year.
Best: 10 PPG, 12 RPG, 2.5 BPG
Amir Williams did not receive much playing time last season, but it was of little fault of his own.
The former McDonald’s All-American was simply the reserve for a two-time All-American and legitimate collegiate superstar in Jared Sullinger.
Nevertheless, Williams was second on the teams in blocks per game (.8) in only about six minutes of action a night. There is no reason to not expect this number to skyrocket in a season where he is the starting center.
Additionally, at 6’11” Williams is by far the tallest Buckeye, an advantage he should exploit to grab double-digit rebounds almost every game.
If he can throw in a little offense along the way, Matta will be more than thrilled.
Worst: 3 PPG, 8 RPG, 1 BPG
In Williams’ worst-case scenario, he will not add anything on the offensive side and will only turn in mediocre defensive numbers.
Considering that he almost averaged one block a game in last season’s limited action, a similar number would be very disappointing.
Moreover, while eight rebounds per contest is nothing to sneeze at, someone who is basically seven feet tall needs to grab more than this, especially in the bruising Big Ten.
Williams is Ohio State’s only true center on the roster. The Buckeyes are going to need a performance much closer to his best-case scenario than his worst.