It was smooth sailing for the Ohio State basketball team in its first game of the 2013-14 season.
While the Buckeyes made mincemeat of the Morgan State Bears, fans of the program were treated to their first surprise of the year when Sam Thompson came off the bench. Shannon Scott started alongside Aaron Craft in the backcourt, but a number of Buckeyes saw significant minutes in the blowout.
Working under the assumption that Thad Matta sticks with this starting lineup, read on to see one prediction for each starter this season.
Aaron Craft receives praise and recognition for being one of the best defensive players in the nation, and rightly so, but he will set a career high in assists this season on the offensive end.
Anyone who watched the first game against Morgan State could tell just how much the ball is going to move around this year. As great as Deshaun Thomas was as the Big Ten’s leading scorer in 2012-13, the offense often bogged down and became a game of one-on-one when he had the ball.
Without one true offensive superstar (LaQuinton Ross hasn’t reached that level yet but could eventually), the offense is less stagnant and the ball seems to find the open man. Furthermore, there will be plenty of transition opportunities when Ohio State plays small ball and forces turnovers on the perimeter.
With so much ball movement and fast-break chances, Craft’s assist numbers will be the beneficiary. The offense runs through his decisions, and fortunately for the Buckeyes, he often makes the right ones.
Aaron Craft is the best defender in the entire Big Ten, but his own teammate Shannon Scott isn’t far behind. In fact, Craft may be better at staying in front of his man, drawing charges and impacting the game without the ball, but Scott will tally more total steals this season.
Last year Scott played 20.9 minutes a night and averaged 1.7 steals a game, while Craft averaged 2.1 steals in 34.1 minutes a game. As a starter this year and critical cog in the rotation, Scott will play significantly more than 20.9 minutes a game, but Craft won’t be on the floor much more than his 34 from last year.
That means Scott will make up the 0.4 steal difference over the course of the 2013-14 season.
The best thing about this competition from an Ohio State perspective is that it wins either way. When Craft and Scott are on the floor together, you would be hard-pressed to find a better defensive duo in any backcourt across the country.
Lenzelle Smith Jr. seems to be the forgotten man for the Ohio State basketball team among fans.
He does everything effectively—shooting, defense and rebounding come to mind—but nothing so impressively that it really stands out, a la Aaron Craft’s defense or Sam Thompson’s dunking. However, when Smith leads the Buckeyes in three-point shooting this year, fans will finally start to take notice.
He got off to an impressive start by hitting four of his six attempts from long range in the first game. Smith has shot better than 37 percent each of the last two seasons, but now, as a senior, he will improve his shot selection and ultimately his percentage.
The primary issue for the Ohio State basketball team heading into the season was finding a way to replace Deshaun Thomas’ Big Ten-leading scoring totals.
Many assumed LaQuinton Ross would be the key to those efforts, especially after his impressive NCAA tournament performance. While he won’t lead the league in scoring or top 20 points a night, he will play effectively enough to earn a spot on the all-conference squad.
Those familiar with Ross know he can score. He has a formidable outside shot, can attack the lane off the dribble, finish through contact at the rim and back down smaller defenders. Scoring won’t be an issue, even with the extra defensive attention Ross will face this season.
What will secure Ross’ spot on the All-Big Ten team is his rebounding. He grabbed 11 in the opener and was occasionally the tallest player on the floor for the Buckeyes in their small-ball lineup. Ross will play significantly more time than Amir Williams or Trey McDonald and lead the squad in boards.
Amir Williams blocked two shots in the season opener against Morgan State, which is something Buckeye fans should get accustomed to.
Williams is never going to be the offensive force that previous Ohio State big men were (Jared Sullinger and Greg Oden come to mind), but he has the opportunity to be a defensive difference-maker as a junior. If he consistently provides solid help defense down low and rebounds effectively, Thad Matta would be more than pleased.
The main issue with Williams is staying out of foul trouble. He fouled out in a mere 14 minutes against Morgan State and has had problems avoiding whistles in the past. If he can find a way to stay on the floor for extended periods of time without fouling, Williams will use his height and wingspan to rank among the Big Ten’s leaders in blocked shots.
Follow and interact with college basketball writer Scott Polacek on Twitter @ScottPolacek.