Ohio State Basketball: Ranking Buckeyes' Most Likely March Madness Heroes
Ohio State has big plans heading into postseason play after a year that saw the Buckeyes finish in the No. 2 spot in the loaded Big Ten. However, the only way those ambitions become a reality is if individual players have their own versions of a “one shining moment.”
Whether it is Aaron Craft stealing passes or Deshaun Thomas finding his stroke from behind the three-point line, someone is going to step to the plate if Thad Matta’s bunch is to return to the Final Four. Last year’s option of dumping it down low to Jared Sullinger and watching him work is no longer on the table.
Read on to see a ranking of the least to most likely Buckeye to become a March Madness hero.
Amir Williams has been a case study of disappointment in his first two years in Columbus. He clearly has talent, hence his status as a McDonald’s All-American coming out of high school, but he just hasn’t found a way to tap into his vast potential.
The one thing that could work in Williams’ favor as the NCAA tournament heats up is the fact that the games won’t be nearly as physical as most Big Ten contests. No matter who the Buckeyes face in the first couple of rounds, Williams won’t be facing the likes of Derrick Nix, Adreian Payne or Cody Zeller.
In fact, Williams played an integral role in Ohio State’s Elite Eight win over Syracuse last year when Jared Sullinger sat out much of the first half with foul trouble. Without his rebounding and defensive efforts, the Buckeyes likely would have watched the Final Four from home.
The further the Scarlet and Gray advance in March the less likely Williams is to be a “hero,” but it wouldn’t be completely surprising if he made an impact in the early rounds.
If this was a ranking of the most talented Buckeyes or even the most important Buckeyes heading into March, Sam Thompson would be higher on this list. However, his game doesn’t necessarily lend itself to heroism, which is why he finds himself in the seven spot.
Thompson has provided Thad Matta with about all the coach could ask for from his sophomore. His length and athleticism have contributed on defense, he has helped out in the rebounding department and his jump shot is gradually improving. Thompson will certainly be heard from in March, and Ohio State is going to need some assistance for the likes of Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft.
It’s hard to envision a game where Thompson scores much more than 10 points, hence the lack of hero potential, but he is vitally important on both ends of the ball if the Buckeyes are to advance.
It may seem strange to see LaQuinton Ross ahead of two starters on this list but, as it always does with Ross, this conversation comes down to potential.
Ross has more offensive talent than anyone on the Ohio State roster not named Deshaun Thomas, and it is certainly possible that he finally taps into that ability in the NCAA tournament without Big Ten defenders hounding his every move.
If the offensive flow of the game opens up a bit in March, Ross could carry the Buckeyes for extended stretches of a contest or two. Be it his three-point shooting or capability of getting in the lane that we saw sporadically against Illinois on Sunday, Ross can make an impact in a variety of ways with the ball in his hands.
Whether he does so remains to be seen, but the talent is there. Look for Ross to at least have an impact in the early rounds when the level of competition may not be up to par with the likes of Indiana, Michigan and Michigan State.
Evan Ravenel is far from a flashy center that will demand the attention of the nation throughout March Madness, but he will provide Thad Matta with just enough inside presence on both sides of the floor to make a much-needed impact.
While most commentators discussed Aaron Craft’s defense and Deshaun Thomas’ clutch points in monumental late victories over Indiana and Michigan State, Ravenel quietly played two of his best games as a Buckeye. Without his rebounding, interior defense and timely baskets, Ohio State doesn’t win either of those contests.
Ravenel may come off the bench, but he is Thad Matta’s best big man. If the Scarlet and Gray are to make a deep run in either bracket, there will be multiple times—especially in the Big Ten tournament—that Ravenel is needed down low.
It is not that farfetched to imagine a crucial put back or block from Ravenel as a closely contested game winds down. He may not be as important as Craft or Thomas, but Ravenel needs to have a productive March.
Lenzelle Smith Jr.
It’s almost unfair to Lenzelle Smith Jr. that he gets overshadowed on this Ohio State team by so many other players.
Yes, he has the tendency to be inconsistent, but he is second on the squad in scoring, second in rebounding, third in assists, first among regulars in three-point percentage and rarely turns the ball over. Throw in solid perimeter defense, and Smith's overall game is vitally important to the Buckeyes in a number of different ways.
If he finds his outside jump shot early, Smith has the ability to carry Ohio State for stretches at a time. He did so against Northwestern this year and in the Sweet 16 against Cincinnati last year.
While he probably won’t go off for 20-plus points often in March, Smith can play the role of under-appreciated hero if he continues to contribute across the board for Thad Matta. The Buckeyes are going to need his rebounding and scoring if they hope to advance deep into March.
Yes, the third spot on this list is fairly high for Shannon Scott, but he has proved how valuable he is in the season’s closing weeks.
Ohio State will go as far in the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments as its defense takes it, and Scott is the second most important cog in that defensive machine. When he combines with Aaron Craft to hound perimeter ball-handlers, the result is a broken game plan for opponents and easy transition baskets for the Buckeyes, especially with Scott’s speed in the open floor.
Without Scott’s defensive tenacity, there is no chance the Scarlet and Gray win at Bloomington or even over Michigan State in Columbus. He earned a spot on the Big Ten’s All-Defensive Team along with his backcourt mate Craft despite the fact he doesn’t start and has played limited minutes at times this year.
Thad Matta’s small lineup that is spearheaded by Craft and Scott will prove vital to Ohio State’s chances in March. Scott has more potential than all but two Buckeyes to play the role of hero thanks to his defense and speed alone.
For as many headlines as Jared Sullinger garnered last season in Columbus, Deshaun Thomas was Ohio State’s best offensive player throughout the month of March.
Thomas actually led the Buckeyes in scoring in the first three games of the NCAA tournament when he put up 31 against Loyola (MD), 18 against Gonzaga and 24 against Cincinnati. He was hot from behind the three-point line and also took advantage of matchup problems caused by his size and quickness.
It was perhaps the best three-game stretch of Thomas' collegiate career, especially when the circumstances are factored in.
This year Thomas will be the primary focus of opposing defenses, which changes the dynamic a bit. However, that has been the case all season so this will come as no surprise for the Big Ten’s leading scorer.
The key for Thomas will be shot selection. If he establishes a rhythm early in games with easier looks, Thomas can carry the Buckeyes deep into March with his scoring alone. He certainly did last year.
Deshaun Thomas may be the most likely Buckeye to carry his team to victory with an offensive explosion, but it is Aaron Craft that is Ohio State’s best chance at a March Madness hero.
Craft’s excellence on the defensive side of the ball needs no introduction. He is arguably the best on-ball defender in the country (although Victor Oladipo may have that title locked up), harasses opponents into turnovers and frustrated shot attempts and can single-handedly change the outcome of a game with his defensive pressure.
What’s more, he is the most likely of Thad Matta’s players to have the ball in his hands during the waning seconds of the shot clock in closely contested games. Craft had to bail out his teammates multiple times at Indiana at the end of possessions, and there will likely be similar situations as March heats up.
As the point guard, Craft will also have to hit clutch free throws as time is expiring if Ohio State is holding on to a narrow lead. Just ask Trey Burke how the outcome of a season can change if you clank a late free throw or two.
When combining the way Craft alters a game on defense with the likelihood that he will have to make a big play or two on offense at the end of contests, Craft has the best opportunity to become a March Madness hero among Buckeye Nation.