The Ohio State basketball program enjoyed its 11th trip to the Final Four last season. If the Buckeyes don’t equal that level of postseason success this year, it won’t be because they weren’t tested.
Although the complete schedule is not yet finalized, Thad Matta and company will have their work cut out for them in 2012-13.
The Big Ten is loaded and may just be the premier conference in basketball. Throw in the fact that there is a handful of challenging non-conference battles for Ohio State, and the Buckeyes slate is rather formidable.
So who will be the toughest squad to try to bring down the scarlet and gray?
Here is a power ranking of Ohio State’s most difficult opponents.
Nothing about Ohio State’s first game will feel ordinary.
Usually these early November games take place against small conference schools that are there to receive their paychecks and butt-whippings. But this year, the Buckeyes will be facing a perennial Big East contender in Marquette.
Oh, and one other thing—most of the season openers are played on dry land. Ohio State and Marquette will be playing in the Carrier Classic on the USS Yorktown.
In other words, on a boat.
As for the actual difficulty level, the Golden Eagles may not be quite as imposing as usual. They lose last season’s Big East Player of the Year Jae Crowder as well as leading scorer Darius Johnson-Odom.
Nevertheless, Buzz Williams’ squad has plenty of players ready to step up and fill the departed roles, including Junior Cadougan and Davante Gardner.
Expect Ohio State’s first opponent to flirt with the top 25 all season.
It’s time to choose Minnesota.
Are you going to be a contender in the Big Ten under Tubby Smith or be content with middling in the standings while still posing a dangerous threat to the top teams every time you play?
Perhaps the biggest bright spot for the Golden Gophers is the return of Trevor Mbakwe for a sixth season of eligibility. The big man should score plenty of points and rank among the Big Ten leaders in blocks and rebounds, especially after the graduation of Ralph Sampson III.
Minnesota was a relatively young team last season that gained valuable experience. The nucleus of Austin Hollins, Andre Hollins and Rodney Williams will all join Mbakwe for what should be a much improved season at The Barn.
In fact, of all the teams on Ohio State’s schedule, Minnesota may have the best chance to truly surprise some people this year.
If Minnesota is going to be the surprise team on Ohio State’s schedule, Wisconsin will be just the opposite.
Stop me if you’ve heard this script before—the Badgers will play fundamental basketball, limit mistakes/turnovers and bore people to death while doing it.
Still, at the end of the day fans will look up and see Wisconsin near the top of the Big Ten standings and securing a high seed come tourney time.
The Badgers always seem to show up on lists like this, partially out of respect for what Bo Ryan has built in Madison. But there may be something that Wisconsin is not used to this year.
A superstar freshman.
Sam Dekker, a 5-star recruit according to Rivals, should help the Badgers recover from the lost production of Jordan Taylor. Dekker, a lengthy 6’8” forward with a soft shooting stroke, will fit in perfectly with Ryan’s system.
The Buckeyes always seem to struggle in some way or another with Wisconsin. This year may be no different.
Theoretically, Michigan State fans should be worried about the losses of Brandon Wood, Austin Thornton and defending Big Ten Player of the Year Draymond Green.
But the Spartans still have one key piece returning this season—Tom Izzo.
Somehow, no matter who they lose to graduation or the NBA, the green and white never seem to miss a beat under Izzo. However, this year’s effort will depend partially on the health of Branden Dawson, who tore his ACL against the Buckeyes late last season.
A highly-touted recruiting class won’t hurt matters either. If returning players such as Travis Trice, Keith Appling and Adreian Payne can effectively mesh with 5-star recruit Gary Harris, expect big things again out of East Lansing.
In fact, ESPN.com listed Harris as one of 10 freshmen expected to make an instant impact.
Ohio State and Michigan State may share a fellow hatred for the Michigan Wolverines, but there was no love lost when these squads battled three times last year. If this season’s showdowns follow suit, make sure you tune in.
Maybe the Buckeyes would be better off skipping the Kansas game entirely.
Every time Ohio State saw the Jayhawks across the court last year, bad news followed. In the regular season, superstar Jared Sullinger could not play, and health concerns and a loss were the eventual results.
Then came the heart wrenching defeat in the Final Four in a game that saw the scarlet and gray leading by double digits for the majority of the first half.
While the losses of Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor may lead to a different script this time around, Jeff Withey may have something to say about that.
Freshmen Perry Ellis and Ben McLemore will take their star potential and join Withey in an effort to return the Jayhawks to the national title game.
At least this year’s version will be played in Columbus, something that may finally tip the scales in Ohio State’s favor.
It seemed like a foregone conclusion last year that Austin Rivers was going to be departing for the greener pastures of the NBA after his freshman season.
Still, Duke got plenty back. While it may not include some of the star power of Blue Devil teams past, a nucleus of Seth Curry, Ryan Kelly, Andre Dawkins and Mason Plumlee is not exactly mince meat.
Throw in the fact that Duke’s coach (arguably the best in the collegiate game) will be returning from a summer of mixing it up with NBA Olympians, and the Blue Devils will be back to annoy haters across the country.
Ohio State gave some fuel to those Duke-haters last season with a 22-point beat down, but it may not be so easy this time around. You may have heard of the ‘Cameron Crazies’ who will look to make the Buckeyes’ lives a bit more difficult for 40 minutes.
There may be stronger teams on Ohio State’s schedule, but the combination of an early season game, the raucous crowd and the fact that many of the Buckeyes will be relatively inexperienced will make this one of the hardest challenges Matta will face.
It’s a testament to John Beilein that Michigan is higher on this list than college basketball superpowers Kansas, Michigan State and Duke.
The Wolverines have made tremendous strides in the past few years and return some critical pieces from last season’s Big Ten co-championship team.
Michigan became an instant conference contender the second that Trey Burke announced his decision to return to Ann Arbor. If the point guard follows up on his words, the Wolverines may even be a national title threat.
Tim Hardaway Jr. joins his backcourt mate on what is perhaps Michigan’s best team since the days of the Fab Five. But it is the maize and blue’s highly-regarded recruiting class that has fans in Ann Arbor especially excited.
It should be a treat for Big Ten fans to watch Aaron Craft and Burke rekindle their rivalry two or three times this season.
Rumor has it that there is a formidable rivalry between the two schools as well.
The Indiana Hoosiers find themselves in the top spot of yet another preseason poll.
Although this one may mean slightly less than the eventual No. 1 ranking they will receive in the official rankings, Tom Crean’s squad will be the toughest opponent Ohio State will face next season.
Cody Zeller has the chance to be the top player in the nation, other significant pieces from last year’s team return and a quality recruiting class will provide the Hoosiers with critical depth.
Whether you are an Indiana supporter or not, it’s hard to not at least be a little happy for the program’s fan base after loyally struggling through some lean years following Kelvin Sampson.
The Buckeyes split their two games against the Hoosiers last season, including a heartbreaking New Year’s Eve loss in Assembly Hall.
If Matta and company intend to compete for another Big Ten championship, there is no doubt the road will go through Bloomington.