Ohio State Basketball: Why OSU Will Rebound from Losses of Sullinger and Buford
The Ohio State Buckeyes had a successful season in 2011-12, posting a 31-8 record on their way to the Final Four, before a heartbreaking 64-62 loss to Kansas in the semifinals.
The Buckeyes will be without key contributors William Buford and Jared Sullinger this season, as critics have begun to question the team's ability to repeat the same level of success.
There is no question that the loss of Buford and Sullinger, who combined for more than 42 percent of the Buckeyes' scoring output last year, leaves major voids for head coach Thad Matta to fill. It's not every year that a coach is presented with the task of replacing a two-time All-American and one of the program's all-time leading scorers, but there is enough talent on the roster for Ohio State to be optimistic about the future.
Sullinger was a handful for opponents the last two seasons, as he produced more than 1,200 points and 700 rebounds for the Buckeyes, leading the team to a 65-11 record.
However, Matta has shown the ability to reload from key departures in the past. Here is why he will do it again after the major losses of two of the Big Ten's best players.
Aaron Craft was the best point guard in the Big Ten last season, averaging more than 8 points, four assists and 2.5 steals per game (most in the conference).
The 6'2" guard has been relied on to distribute the ball on offense and play in-your-face defense the last two seasons. With the loss of Buford and Sullinger, expect Craft to look for his own shot more often this season. Craft has proven to be a dependable scoring option, shooting 50 percent from the field last season despite a limited number of attempts (less than six shot attempts per game).
In addition, Craft will continue to pressure opposing ball-handlers this season. The Buckeyes point guard has a knack for picking opponents' pockets, registering a career-high six steals against Cincinnati in the Sweet Sixteen last March.
Craft is a major reason for a sense of optimism in Columbus. He has been a floor general since his arrival on campus and will continue to improve with experience. Craft knows the Buckeyes will be back to contend in the Big Ten in 2012-13, according to Daniel Chi's article in The Lantern.
“The goals don’t change from year to year. The guys change, the personnel changes, maybe the coaches change, but the goals don’t really change. The goals are always the same, which is to become the best basketball team that we can be, and play our best basketball when we need to.”
Anticipate a huge season on the hardwood from this playmaker.
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Forward Deshaun Thomas was a beast in the NCAA Tournament last season.
While his teammate drew most of the attention down-low, Thomas averaged more than 19 points and seven rebounds during March Madness—as he was the tournament's leading scorer entering the Final Four.
With his 6'7", 225-pound frame, Thomas has the ability to man up in the post, while also keeping defenders off balance with his smooth outside stroke. Thomas shot 52 percent from the field last season, knocking down the second most three-pointers on the team.
His impressive sophomore campaign has drawn a great deal of national attention, as Thomas has been named a 2012-13 preseason All-American by Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook.
Now, the junior expects to do even more this season, according to Chi's article.
“I expect to do a lot,” Thomas said. “To help my teammates win, and do the little things to help them win. It’s going to be all work and dedication.”
Opportunity for Young Guns
If Big Ten fans have learned anything about Matta, it's that he can reload his team faster than you can reload your gun in Call of Duty.
Matta has had a laundry list of early exists during his time in Columbus: Greg Oden, Mike Conley, Daequan Cook, Kosta Koufos, B.J. Mullens, Evan Turner and Sullinger. Nevertheless, with each wave of talent that departs for the NBA, Matta finds a way to bring another crop of high-level players.
With the exit of Buford and Sullinger, this season will provide an opportunity for Matta's stellar 2011 recruiting class (ranked 10th in the nation by rivals.com) to prove their worth.
One player who is certain to relish the opportunity is sophomore big man Amir Williams. The 6'11" post player was rated the fifth best center by scout.com in the 2011 class. Williams received limited game-action last season (less than seven minutes per game), as Sullinger held down the fort, but expect him to make key contributions in 2012-13.
Williams was described as a player with "off-the-charts potential and upside" by ESPN's recruiting analyst Reggie Rankin. Williams is an athletic post player who can finish with authority around the rim.
Small forward LaQuinton Ross is also primed for a breakout season this year. Ross, a four-star recruit in the 2011 class (according to scout.com), is a slashing wingman who can stroke it from long-range.
Ross played in only seven games last season, as he was not cleared to play until December due to academic reasons. However, expect him to make a big contribution from the outside with the absence of Buford.
Ross has heard the doubters express uncertainty about the Buckeyes this year, but believes his team will be ready to prove them wrong, according to Raphielle Johnson's article on collegebasketballtalk.nbcsports.com.
"We're faster and more athletic than we were last year," Ross said.
Matta has the most wins of any Buckeyes coach through their first eight seasons in school history—sporting four Big Ten regular season titles. The loss of Buford and Sullinger will be hard to combat, but history says that only a fool would write off the Buckeyes in the upcoming season.