The Ohio State basketball team is once again considered a contender for the Big Ten title and Final Four heading into the 2013-14 college basketball season.
Whether the Buckeyes will meet these high expectations remains to be seen, but much of the success or failure of the year will hinge on a handful of aspects.
Read on to see five things Thad Matta and company must do during the upcoming year for it to be considered a success.
Ohio State’s identity under Thad Matta has always been about defense, and it will be even more so in the 2013-14 season.
The Buckeyes lose the Big Ten’s leading scorer in Deshaun Thomas and will be relying on a collection of offensively talented but somewhat unproven scorers when they have the ball (yes, LaQuinton Ross and Sam Thompson have experience, but not as go-to options).
That means the Scarlet and Gray’s performance at the defensive end will be critical.
Fortunately for Matta, he has plenty of options when it comes to defensive stalwarts. Aaron Craft is arguably the best defender in the entire nation and has to be considered one of the favorites to win national defensive player of the year.
Throw in Shannon Scott, and Ohio State has a lethal combination of quickness and basketball-IQ in the backcourt, meeting opposing ball-handlers immediately.
Amir Williams is a talented shot-blocker, despite his offensive issues, and Sam Thompson and Lenzelle Smith Jr. have the length and athleticism to disrupt offensive attacks as well.
Look for the Buckeyes to play lockdown defense all season.
Fair or not, Thad Matta has been criticized in the past for not developing enough depth over the course of the season.
While there have been years during which the Buckeyes only used six players on a regular basis, the 2013-14 campaign could see as many as eight or nine in the consistent rotation.
Barring injury, Aaron Craft, LaQuinton Ross, Lenzelle Smith Jr., Sam Thompson, Shannon Scott and Amir Williams can be written into the rotation in permanent ink, but Amedeo Della Valle as well as freshmen Marc Loving and Kameron Williams should see some time too.
Kameron Williams has the potential to develop into the type of sharpshooter from behind the three-point arc that the Buckeyes have been missing since Jon Diebler.
Loving will likely take many of the minutes Deshaun Thomas leaves behind, while Della Valle has had an impressive summer playing in Europe.
More depth will mean fresher legs come March, which will only serve to help Ohio State in its quest to return to the Final Four for the second time in three seasons.
Speeding up the pace of play goes hand in hand with Ohio State’s need to play lockdown defense because the half-court offense is certainly a question mark at this point without Deshaun Thomas.
If the Buckeyes play defense the way many expect them to, there will be plenty of opportunities to cash in on easy opportunities on the other side. Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott will both contend for the Big Ten steals title, which will lead to alley-oop passes for Sam Thompson, LaQuinton Ross and Lenzelle Smith Jr.
There is an assumption that Ross will develop into a top-notch scorer in the half court a la Thomas, but there is no proven go-to guy just yet.
Any easy chance Ohio State can get when it comes to scoring points will go a long way towards improving the squad’s odds of contending for a Big Ten title.
A successful 2014 for the Ohio State basketball program would extend beyond the boundary lines of the court.
After two somewhat lackluster recruiting classes—by Thad Matta’s high standards—the Buckeyes are primed for an impactful 2014 signing day.
There has been so much hype in the program surrounding the 2014 class that, if Matta didn’t finish strong by adding at least one more commitment, it would almost feel like a disappointment. Ohio State's 2014 class is currently ranked second in the nation by 247Sports.com.
D’Angelo Russell, Dave Bell, Jae’Sean Tate and Keita Bates-Diop are already in tow, and the Scarlet and Gray are still considered contenders for a number of the top remaining unsigned prospects.
If Matta lands another 5-star player, the Buckeyes may even contend for the hypothetical recruiting crown as the No. 1 class in the country.
If there is possibly a downside to building a basketball program into an elite national contender year in and year out, it is the almost unfair expectations that are in place every season.
This reality is now a constant that Thad Matta faces after building Ohio State into the Big Ten’s best program in the past seven years.
Granted, expectations of success are much preferable to the alternative, but there was somewhat of a prevailing sense of disappointment after last year.
Losing to Wichita State on the doorstep of the Final Four was difficult to swallow for Buckeye fans. That Big Ten tournament title and late-season run faded into the distant past, as supporters of the Scarlet and Gray had to cancel Final Four reservations following the Elite Eight upset.
A return to the Final Four for the second time in three years would leave zero doubt over if the 2013-14 season was considered a success or not.
Follows and interact with Ohio State basketball writer Scott Polacek on Twitter @ScottPolacek.