As a student at The Ohio State University, it is clear that expectations for the upcoming men’s basketball season are very high. The team has received unprecedented attention the past several weeks, with a demand for tickets well above the supply that was originally available.
The Buckeyes are ranked third in both major college basketball polls, and are led by sophomore star big man Jared Sullinger, who was the only unanimous first-team choice for preseason All-American and is the consensus choice for preseason player of the year.
Tonight, the Ohio State Buckeyes face their first major test of the season, as they face the Florida Gators, who are ranked 7th in the Associated Press poll, and 8th in the ESPN/USA Today rankings.
The Buckeyes have the home-court advantage, playing in Columbus at the Schottenstein Center, which should be packed nearly to capacity for the first time this season, but they are going to play at their absolute best to emerge victorious from this contest.
The Buckeyes are certainly not a one-man show. William Buford, the team’s only senior, is one of the nation’s best wing guards. Like Sullinger, point guard Aaron Craft emerged in a tremendous freshman season, and is one of the best all-around point guards in the nation, although possibly the single best defensive point guard in all of college basketball.
Sullinger, Buford and Craft make up the Buckeyes’ “Big Three,” but the Buckeyes are very deep in young talent.
Another sophomore, Deshaun Thomas, has moved into the starting lineup this year and is expected to make a larger impact. Rounding out the starting lineup, at least in the first game of the season against Wright State, has been guard Lenzelle Smith Jr., another sophomore.
Off the bench, the Buckeyes have a talented group of freshmen. This group is led by Shannon Scott, who will spell Craft at point guard, and Sam Thompson, a tremendous athlete who can play at the 4 and on the wing. Two other key players off of the bench are sophomore guard Jordan Sibert, who may be the Buckeyes’ best shooter from beyond the arc, and junior forward Evan Ravenel, a transfer from Boston College, who gives the Buckeyes added size and rebounding inside.
The Buckeyes have as talented a roster as there is in college basketball this year, but the Gators certainly have the talent to match them. The crucial matchup for Florida is going to be between the sophomore big men inside.
While Sullinger gets all the attention, Patric Young showed flashes of brilliance off the bench as a freshman and appears poised to emerge as one of the nation’s best big men this season. Both players are 6-foot-9, athletic and have inside-outside games.
Sullinger’s strength and post ability will give him the advantage in the paint, but Young may be the superior athlete, and he will use that to tire Sullinger and attempt to coerce him into foul trouble.
The Buckeyes will attempt to do the same to Young, for they have more depth inside. The Gators will be looking for strong performances from Erik Murphy and Will Yeguete off the bench to combat the likes of Thomas, Thompson and Ravenel inside for the Buckeyes.
All of that said, this game is going to be won and lost on the perimeter. The Gators have an absolutely tremendous backcourt. Senior Erving Walker may be small, but he is a disciplined point guard and fantastic shooter who is the leader of the Gators on both ends of the court.
Joining him in the backcourt are two very talented juniors, Kenny Boynton and Mike Rosario, along with one of the nation’s most highly touted freshmen, Brad Beal. All of these guards are tremendous athletes, and the X-factor may be Beal, who packs a complete game with a tremendous outside shot.
It will be interesting to see how Ohio State head coach Thad Matta decides to use Craft defensively. Expect that Craft will start out the game defending Walker, but if Boynton or Beal heats up, Matta may decide to shift his best defensive player onto one of them.
Since Craft can only guard one player at a time in a man defense and the Gators often use four guards (Scottie Wilbekin should also see good minutes off of the bench), the pressure will be on Buford, Smith Jr. and all of the Buckeyes’ perimeter players to step up and play great defense.
I am expecting a very close game with numerous lead changes, and it is very hard to choose a winner. Florida may be the more athletic team, and packs slightly more offensive firepower.
However, when the game is on the line, I think Sullinger will take control of the game inside, and the Ohio State defense will come up with the necessary stops for the Buckeyes to come away with a four-, five- or six-point victory.