The Ohio State basketball team kicks off its season Saturday against Morgan State with Big Ten and national title hopes.
Yes, the Buckeyes lost their most explosive offensive weapon from a year ago in Deshaun Thomas, but Aaron Craft and company operate one of the most suffocating and ruthless defenses in the country.
Read on to get an in-depth season preview for the Scarlet and Gray.
There are only two newcomers of note for Thad Matta this season, and both freshmen will compete for significant minutes all year.
Marc Loving will be a critical cog in the rotation thanks to the lack of interior depth behind Amir Williams. Loving is the defending Mr. Basketball in Ohio and gives Matta both length and athleticism to utilize. He will contribute in the scoring and rebounding departments and should provide solid defense.
The other freshman in Ohio State’s 2013 class is Kameron Williams. Williams is an explosive and shifty guard who has the ability to blow past defenders, put on a show with his formidable dunking prowess and hit from long range. The Buckeyes’ backcourt is crowded, but Williams should see some time this year.
It is worth noting that Williams dealt with mono for a significant chunk of the offseason, meaning it will likely take some time to get up to speed and crack the rotation.
It would be easy to list as many as six players in this category for Ohio State, especially considering how dependent it will be on its defense and how many quality defenders are on the roster.
But we will focus on the two that may define how successful the Buckeyes are in 2013-14 on either end of the floor.
Aaron Craft returns for his final season and will once again spearhead the defense. No player in the country impacts the game more without the ball in his hands, and his defensive presence is only enhanced with Shannon Scott by his side.
Craft also showed bursts of offensive production down the stretch last year when he attacked the lane more and relied less on his jumper. If he scores double-digit points a game to go along with his defense, Big Ten Player of the Year is a possibility.
While Craft’s offense would be welcomed with open arms, LaQuinton Ross will be the go-to option. He showed just how talented he is during the most recent NCAA tournament, and the Buckeyes are going to need his outside scoring and ability to attack the rim if they hope to replace Thomas’ conference-leading scoring numbers.
Ohio State’s full roster can be found here and below:
Lenzelle Smith Jr.
Amedeo Della Valle
The projected starting lineup is Craft at point guard, Smith at shooting guard, Thompson and Ross at forwards and Amir Williams at center. Scott will likely see as many minutes as Smith given his defensive ability and explosive speed in transition. Look for Loving to be the defacto “big man” when the Buckeyes go small.
Kameron Williams will also see time if he delivers on the offensive end, and perhaps even Della Valle cracks the rotation if he taps into his three-point potential. McDonald will play minutes for the simple fact he is the only center on the roster besides Amir Williams.
Coach Matta knows what he is getting from Craft. To a lesser extent he knows what he is getting from Scott, Ross (although there are still questions about his ability to be an alpha-dog) and Thompson.
That leaves Amir Williams and Smith as notable X-factors in the Buckeyes’ rotation.
The fact that Smith is still an X-factor as he enters his senior year isn’t as alarming as it may seem on the surface. We have seen what he is capable of on both ends of the floor, the only question is whether he can reach his potential on a consistent basis. Part of being a senior leader is bringing consistent production all season, and if Smith can do that the Buckeyes will be in good shape.
Williams on the other hand has more than just consistency concerns. He has failed to live up to his McDonalds’ All-American status through two years on campus and drew the ire of many fans last season.
Williams is now officially an upperclassman, and if he is ever going to make the leap this will be the season. There is no proven depth in the paint behind him, meaning the Buckeyes are going to need rebounding, blocks, strong interior defense and occasional scoring from their big man.
There are not that many teams that can legitimately claim they are national title contenders but Ohio State certainly can. Yes, a number of things would have to break in a favorable way for the Buckeyes, but that is exactly how a best-case scenario comes about.
The path to Coach Matta’s first national title begins with defense. If Craft, Scott, Smith, Thompson and even Amir Williams all maximize their respective potential on that end of the floor, there may not be a better team in the nation at preventing the opponent from scoring.
Much of the Buckeyes offense would derive from that defensive pressure through transition opportunities. Furthermore, in the best case scenario, Ross would be the dominant offensive force he was in the NCAA tournament all season and even take home the Big Ten Player of the Year title.
While a national title is the best-case scenario, the worst-case scenario still results in a postseason bid. Assuming good health, there is too much talent on the Ohio State roster to miss the Big Dance entirely, but an early exit is certainly possible.
There is a chance the Buckeyes offense struggles all year without Thomas. If that becomes the case, a second-round upset to a squad that capitalizes on a low-scoring affair could happen.
Fortunately, for Ohio State fans, the actual outcome of this season will be much closer to the best-case scenario than the worst.
The Buckeyes defense will suffocate opponents all season, Craft will win National Defensive Player of the Year (while teammate Scott earns a spot on the Big Ten’s All-Defensive Team), Ross will average north of 15 points a night and Ohio State will finish second in the Big Ten behind only Michigan State.
While the Buckeyes will come up just short of a regular season title, Coach Matta’s domination of the Big Ten tournament will continue.
The combination of a second-place finish in the country’s best conference along with a league tournament title will give Ohio State a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. The Buckeyes will continue their streak of Sweet 16 appearances (currently the longest in the nation at four) and once again reach the Elite Eight.
That is where the journey will come to an end, although this time against an elite team from a power league as opposed to last year against Wichita State. While the disappointment of coming so close to the Final Four two seasons in a row will certainly sting, it will still be a tremendously successful campaign.