The 2012-13 college basketball season was something of an anomaly for recent Ohio State Buckeye squads—there was no Big Ten Championship at the end.
Yes, the Scarlet and Gray won the conference tournament for the third time in four years, but it was only the third time since 2005 that there wasn't at least a share of the regular-season title.
Read on to see five critical keys to Ohio State rectifying that situation and winning the conference in 2013-14.
Ohio State won games last season on the back of its suffocating defense and will likely do the same in 2013-14, but there will be contests where more offense is needed.
The Buckeyes will be without defending Big Ten scoring champ Deshaun Thomas, meaning their half-court offense will certainly be a question mark heading into the year. One way to counter those concerns will be to speed up the pace of play.
Thad Matta has the thoroughbreds in place to do just that. Aaron Craft, Shannon Scott, Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Sam Thompson will create plenty of turnovers, which will lead to easy opportunities on the other end.
Craft and Scott will contend for the conference steals crown, meaning Thompson and LaQuinton Ross will have the chance to flush down a few alley-oops in transition.
Those types of baskets truly help cover up offensive deficiencies over the course of a long season.
Amir Williams may stand nearly 7"0" tall, but thus far in his career at Ohio State, he is only averaging three rebounds a game. Even as a full-time starter in 2012-13, he grabbed fewer than four boards a night.
Those numbers must improve in the physically demanding Big Ten if the Buckeyes are going to win a conference title, especially without Evan Ravenel there to spell Williams in times of struggle. Otherwise, Thad Matta will be forced to utilize a small-ball lineup like he often did last year.
The problem with this season’s version of the small-ball group is the lack of Deshaun Thomas.
While he wasn’t always the best defender, he led the team in rebounding and was critical in keeping Ohio State afloat on the boards without a dominant center.
Freshman Marc Loving may be counted on to fill that role this time around.
It is difficult to win any league without a solid rebounding effort, let alone the bruising Big Ten.
There is no doubt what Ohio State’s strength will be in the 2013-14 season.
The Buckeyes were ranked ninth in the country in Ken Pomeroy’s pace-adjusted defensive rankings last year and should improve this time around.
Shannon Scott only began to scratch the surface of his defensive potential as a sophomore and will be ready to team up with Aaron Craft for the entire schedule.
Furthermore, Deshaun Thomas is no longer in Columbus, which clearly hurts the Buckeyes offense but may actually help improve the defense. While he improved as his career progressed, Thomas still had defensive lapses throughout the course of games.
Elsewhere, Sam Thompson is also a terrific defender and Amir Williams is a talented shot-blocker.
With offense still standing as a potential concern, the defense must be top-notch if the Buckeyes want a Big Ten title. It almost certainly will be.
Holding serve may be a tennis term, but it applies to the contested Big Ten basketball race for the 2013-14 season.
For Ohio State, holding serve in this conference consists of defending home court against the other elite teams in the league and sweeping the squads in the bottom half of the standings.
The Buckeyes have done a solid job of beating the teams they should over the past few seasons and that must continue if a conference crown is in the cards this year.
There are so many daunting venues in the Big Ten that there will undoubtedly be some road losses along the way for Thad Matta’s squad. Michigan State, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Purdue and Minnesota all jump to mind as intimidating venues, and any opposing student body is going to be fired up to play the Buckeyes.
That means a Big Ten title run would require impressive play in the comforts of Value City Arena.
Nobody is going to mistake Ohio State’s Big Three in 2013-14 for LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh—especially on offense—but the Buckeyes are going to need consistent scoring production from Aaron Craft, LaQuinton Ross and Sam Thompson.
For a team with such high expectations heading into the year, offense could be an issue.
Many are working under the assumption that Ross is going to seamlessly replace Deshaun Thomas’ conference-leading scoring production, but Ross has never been the No. 1 option in a collegiate atmosphere. There will likely be some level of growing pains.
Thad Matta is going to need Craft to continue the offensive push he made in the second half of last year by driving to the basket more and not relying on his jump shot as much.
Furthermore, Thompson should benefit from the defensive attention that Ross should draw and could even lead the team in scoring by the end of the season.
If the Buckeyes are going to win the Big Ten, these three players must provide plenty of offense in tightly contested games.
Follow and interact with Ohio State basketball writer Scott Polacek on Twitter @ScottPolacek.