Another basketball season is set to begin in November, which means, once again, that it is Final Four or bust for the Ohio State Buckeyes.
However, following the departures of Jared Sullinger and William Buford, the scarlet and gray are going to have their work cut out for them if they hope to once again be playing during the season’s final weekend.
Despite the personnel losses, the Buckeyes are still expected to rank among the nation’s best teams, primarily because they have two of the best players in the Big Ten returning to lead a young core.
Specifically, point guard Aaron Craft and small/power forward Deshaun Thomas will provide head coach Thad Matta with two experienced leaders who can be utilized in a number of fashions.
While there is little doubt that Craft and Thomas are the two best, and most important, players on Ohio State’s roster, it is intriguing to wonder which player will prove more pivotal to the Buckeyes if they once again win a Big Ten championship.
For the record, Craft recently made it perfectly clear to Sports Illustrated (albeit, with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek) who would win in a game of one-on-one.
“I'm strong enough to body him up so he couldn't get to the basket easily," he said. "He'd get frustrated. I'd use my outside skills, then drive past him."
Nevertheless, comparing the one-on-one games of a point guard and power forward is as close to an apples and oranges debate as one can get when it comes to basketball. I am more interested in which player will have a bigger say in determining how far the Buckeyes go in 2012-13.
The Case for Thomas
In the past, Buckeye fans have worried that Deshaun Thomas never met a shot he didn’t like. After all, with players such as Jared Sullinger, David Lighty, Jon Diebler and William Buford littering the roster, a young Thomas jacking up 20 shots a game wasn’t exactly the ideal recipe for victory.
This year should be a completely different story.
Thomas has matured during his two years in Thad Matta’s system, and his shot selection is vastly superior to what it once was. He wouldn’t have led Ohio State starters in field-goal percentage last season (52) if it wasn’t.
Thomas will undoubtedly be the go-to scorer in 2012-13 for the Buckeyes. He is their best offensive weapon who can score from anywhere, slash the lane, hit the three and post up smaller forwards. He even holds a 77 percent career clip from the charity stripe, which is impressive for a power forward.
One of the main reasons Thomas will be so important for Ohio State this year is his versatility. His ball-handling and shooting abilities allow Matta to play him at the small forward slot, but Thomas also is physical enough to bang around a little down low.
Thomas’ offensive abilities were not only evident in early non-conference games against directional schools. He turned in plenty of clutch performances last year, some of which earned him a spot on ESPN’s All-Tournament second team. Thomas made the NCAA tournament his personal playground, obliterating every team he faced except Kansas.
It is Thomas’ offense that gets all the hype, and rightly so. However, he is much more committed to defense than he was at the beginning of his career in Columbus. Matta used to call him “Sean Thomas” because there was no D in his game, but his dedication to improvement on that side of the ball allowed him to shed that moniker.
While it would be really pivotal for Ohio State if Thomas improves on his rebounding totals (especially with Sullinger gone), he will nevertheless be incredibly important to the Buckeyes in 2012-13.
Case for Craft
Ask college coaches across the country who their ideal point guard is, and there is a fairly good chance they will say Aaron Craft.
After all, when CBSSports.com asked college coaches across the country which player they would add to their team if given the chance, Craft garnered the most votes of any point guard and accumulated the third-most total votes (behind only Cody Zeller and Shabazz Muhammad).
A big reason for this respect is Craft’s ability to control the game from both ends of the floor. A Sports Illustrated article proclaimed that nobody has a better overall command of the game than Craft from an offensive and defensive standpoint.
In fact, it is Craft’s defense that really makes him stand out among his peers. He finished second in the nation in total steals last season and led the Big Ten in steals per game (2.5), which was good enough to earn Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.
But his statistical production doesn’t even begin to account for his overall impact on the less glamorous side of the ball. He routinely draws charges, harasses the opposition’s best ball-handler and spearheads any type of pressure Matta decides to place on the other team.
On the offensive side, Craft takes care of ball, which may be the most important thing a point guard can do. He possesses a better than 2.2 assists-to-turnovers ratio in career, which should only improve as he becomes an upperclassman.
He also has a better shot than he is given credit for, shooting 50 percent from the field last year and 37 percent from three-point range and 72 percent from the free throw line in his career.
Most importantly for the Buckeyes, especially now that Sullinger is gone, is the fact that Craft is incredibly clutch when the big moments arise.
He hit a critical jumper to tie the game in the waning moments of the de facto Big Ten championship game at Michigan State, obliterated rival Trey Burke in the Big Ten Tournament (Burke turned it over eight times and shot 1-11 from the field) and posted an impressive game in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge against Duke (17 points, eight assists and five rebounds).
Furthermore, he tallied 17 points and 10 assists to rescue the Buckeyes versus Gonzaga in the NCAA tournament and swiped six steals in a Sweet 16 victory over Cincinnati. Ohio State trailed in the second half in both of those games before Craft basically put the team on his back from crucial stretches.
The most exciting thing of all for Buckeye supporters is that Craft will finally be 100 percent healthy this season. Unknown to most, Craft was gritting out games since high school with bone chips floating around that would occasionally jam into his tibia.
I’m sure the other point guards in the Big Ten are thrilled to know that those bone chips were surgically removed over the summer and an even healthier Craft is ready to harass them all winter long.
Let me say this first of all: both Aaron Craft and Deshaun Thomas are vitally important to Ohio State’s chances at competing in the Big Ten and down the road in March. They are clearly a notch ahead of everyone else on the roster, and the Buckeyes will go only as far as their two leaders take them.
But if I am forced to determine which one is more important to Ohio State, the nod would have to go to Craft.
Teams can’t win games if they don’t score but, cliché or not, they can’t win championships without defense.
Frankly speaking, the gap between Craft and Thomas’ individual defense is significantly larger than the one between the duo’s respective offensive talents, even though Thomas has improved on that side of the ball.
Furthermore, the sheer reality is that the position Craft plays can set the tone for the game on both sides of the ball. In a vacuum, a point guard is always going to be a little more important than a forward, all else being equal.
While Craft may be the more important of the two players, my guess is Matta wouldn’t trade either of them.