While Buckeye Nation’s collective attention has been squarely focused on the debate between Ohio State and Auburn for the No. 2 spot in the BCS standings (where the Buckeyes’ loss from seven years ago to Florida somehow holds more weight than the Tigers’ loss three months ago to LSU in the eyes of some), the basketball team in Columbus has quietly climbed to No. 3 in the USA Today Coaches Poll.
Thad Matta’s team has struggled at times on offense, but it features the top defense in the land according to Ken Pomeroy’s pace-adjusted defensive efficiency rankings and will contend for a Big Ten title because of it.
Matta has utilized his bench often this year, but let’s dig into the stock watch for the starters for the undefeated Buckeyes right now.
As long as there is defense to be played, Aaron Craft’s stock will be in demand at the collegiate level.
He is averaging 2.5 steals a night in the early going and recorded a ridiculous seven against American. He has tallied at least one steal in every game so far, a streak that will likely continue for quite some time.
While the defense is always going to be there when discussing Craft, his offense is trending upward as well. His field-goal percentage has reached a more than respectable 47 percent following a 7-of-8 performance against North Florida. The 11.3 points a night would be a career high if he continues it all year.
Craft’s assist-to-turnover ratio is nearly 2.5-to-1, which is outstanding considering how often he has the ball in his hands. The perimeter shot is still lacking, but Craft is finding plenty of ways to impact the game on the offensive end, which will keep his stock among the highest in the entire Big Ten and country when paired with his defense.
For far too long Shannon Scott was known as the point guard Matta recruited instead of Trey Burke, but he has finally broken free from that shadow thanks to his incredible talent and tenacious defense.
It would be nearly impossible for any guard in the country to stand out alongside Craft on the defensive end, but that is exactly what Scott does. He is averaging more than two steals a game as well and has started a number of fast breaks with his ball-hawking abilities on the other end.
And it is that speed that helps him on offense. Outside of creating opportunities in transition, Scott has the explosiveness to slash to the rim and is tallying 11 points a night because of it. His 40 percent clip from downtown certainly doesn’t hurt either.
Scott’s assist-to-turnover ratio of less than 1.5-to-1 leaves a bit to be desired, but there aren’t many other flaws in his play thus far. His stock is certainly trending upward in the early going.
Lenzelle Smith Jr. is the forgotten man in Matta’s starting lineup, and it frankly isn’t really fair to him.
He is tied with Craft and Amir Williams as the team’s leading scorer at 11.3 points a night, leads the squad in three-point percentage at better than 48 percent and is providing rebounding and solid defense every time he steps on the floor.
Smith’s issue has been his consistency, and with only six games in the book, he has a 20-point game and an 18-point game to go along with a four-point outing and seven-point outing. However, as long as Smith continues to provide maximum effort on the defensive and rebounding fronts, Matta will take the scoring streaks in all likelihood.
Smith is the best three-point shooter on the team right now and carried the offense for stretches in games against Wyoming and Morgan State. His stock is certainly on the uptick as well.
If there is one Buckeye starter that has disappointed in the early going, it is LaQuinton Ross.
Ross was supposed to be the go-to option on the offensive end that would replace the lost production of Deshaun Thomas, but he has struggled to the tune of 30 percent shooting and only eight points a game. The preseason expectations may have been weighing on him, though, because shot selection was an issue in the first few games.
The good news for Ross and Ohio State is that he looked like the player who had a coming-out party in the last NCAA tournament against North Florida. He scored 17 points and hit four threes, which was a welcome sign after he scored a combined seven the previous three contests.
Ross hasn’t been the offensive force that many expected yet, but he has been impacting the game through his rebounding (second on the team behind Williams). It is difficult to envision Ross continuing to struggle like this all year, especially considering his performance in the most recent game against the Ospreys. But for now, his stock is lower than it was at the start of the season.
There is a reason that small sample sizes should always be taken with a grain of salt in everything from science to sports, but thus far in the 2013-14 season, this is the Amir Williams Ohio State fans were promised when he committed to the program as a McDonald’s All-American.
He is tied for the team lead in points per game (11.3), leads by a wide margin in rebounds per game (8.3), has blocked two shots a night and made his presence felt on the defensive end. He is hitting 68 percent of his shots from the field and is even shooting 72 percent from the free-throw line.
However, it’s not just about the stats. Williams is finally playing like someone who is 7 feet tall on both ends of the floor. He is stepping up to alter shots on defense, using his size to create position on offense and has even developed something resembling a low post game. We have even seen soft touch on something of a baby hook this year.
If Williams continues to play like this, the Buckeyes could very well be legitimate Final Four contenders. There is no Ohio State player who has seen his stock rise quite as dramatically in the early going as Williams.
Follow and interact with college basketball writer Scott Polacek on Twitter @ScottPolacek.