The Ohio State basketball program has a fairly formidable task in front of it.
The question, or challenge if you will, is if the Buckeyes can once again win the Big Ten or even contend for a repeat trip to the Final Four without two-time All-American Jared Sullinger or crucial contributor William Buford.
If it's going to happen, it's going to take a monumental effort from the entire team. However, some starters are fundamentally more important than others if Ohio State hopes to compete in the deep and talented Big Ten.
It is important to keep in mind that each starter (and a few key contributors off the bench) is incredibly important, especially for a young team like the Buckeyes.
Nevertheless, the Bucks need a stronger effort from certain players in critical moments than others. Feel free to dispute/discuss these rankings below.
Again, this doesn’t mean Lenzelle Smith Jr. isn’t vitally important to Ohio State’s chances in the Big Ten.
It’s just difficult to make the case that Smith is going to be the piece in this starting lineup that carries the Buckeyes to the promised land. In fact, he’s more like the cherry on top of the sundae that is the Ohio State lineup. When he shows up, everything is that much better, but he’s not absolutely necessary.
At least he wasn't last season when Thad Matta’s squad won a share of the Big Ten crown with Smith only averaging 6.8 points per game.
Nevertheless, thanks to the loss of William Buford, Smith will be more important this year with a relative lack of depth at the shooting guard spot (besides Shannon Scott). He doesn’t have to score 28 points every night like he did at home against the Hoosiers, but a more consistent and reliable stat line would go a long way.
It may seem strange at first glance to say LaQuinton Ross is more important than Lenzelle Smith, especially considering how little Ross played last year.
However, I feel that the talent difference separating Ross and his primary backup, Sam Thompson, is/will be greater than that difference between Smith and his first replacement—Shannon Scott.
Ross was never able to claw his way out of Matta’s doghouse after an early season suspension last year, but that doesn’t change the fact that Ross is one of the most gifted players on Ohio State’s roster.
Let’s assume Ross plays significant minutes in 2012-13. He provides the Buckeyes with their best three-point threat, can slash the lane off the dribble, is extremely athletic and even provides size at the small forward spot at 6’8”.
Ross brings a lot to the table that nobody else does for Matta. Whether he can put it all together and contribute is yet to be seen.
Amir Williams is probably not the third best player in Ohio State’s starting lineup.
But he is the third most important.
It’s no secret that the Big Ten is known for its smash mouth approach, be it Montee Ball crashing through tackles or big men banging bodies in the paint reaching for a rebound. If the Buckeyes are going to compete in arguably the nation’s most physical league, they are going to need strong contributions from down low.
It’s not just the physical presence that the 6’11” Williams has to provide for the Bucks, he’s also going to be asked to take the starting spot that was occupied by the All-American Jared Sullinger for the past two seasons.
Of course, nobody is asking Williams to replicate Sullinger’s formidable production, but he needs to be a force on defense and on the boards if Ohio State is going to hang with Indiana and Michigan this year.
There is really little doubt who the two most important Buckeye starters are. In fact, the only debate is who gets top billing.
It’s almost better to look at Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft as a package deal, since both players are absolutely imperative to Ohio State’s chances at a successful season and possess contrasting abilities. Expect Thomas to provide the offense and Craft to consistently play suffocating defense all season.
But someone has to take second billing, and it is Thomas here (only because Craft is that important).
It would certainly be a surprise if anyone other than Thomas led Ohio State in scoring, especially with Sullinger and Buford gone. The nation got an idea of what Thomas can bring on the offensive side of the ball when he made the first four rounds of the NCAA tournament his personal playground last March.
Buckeye fans aren’t the only ones expecting great things out of Thomas this year. The Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook recently named Thomas one of its five preseason All-Americans in its preview publication.
The question is: Can Thomas live up to such impressive preseason accolades?
Ohio State certainly needs him to.
Ask a group of Buckeye fans who they think is the most important player on the 2012-13 basketball roster, and you will probably get the same answer over and over again.
Aaron Craft may not be the nation’s most talented player, but there are few who are more indispensable.
He gives Ohio State the best on-ball defender in the country, setting the tone for the entire game and suffocating the opposing point guard for 40 minutes. In fact, it was Craft’s defense, not the offense of Sullinger or Thomas, that truly got the ball rolling and helped the Buckeyes overcome early deficits against Gonzaga and Cincinnati in last year’s NCAA tournament.
Craft also provides Matta an on-court leader who can help settle things when the game is getting out of hand and guide the team’s young players through adversity without burning a timeout.
Throw in the fact that he has a better offensive game than advertised and often plays his best when the spotlight is brightest (just ask Trey Burke what happened in the Big Ten Tournament), and Ohio State has itself one of the best point guards in the entire nation.