Get the Athlon Sports Newsletter
Jared Sullinger's return makes Buckeyes a national title contender
Everything was in place for the most memorable Ohio State basketball season in half a century until the Sweet 16 left a very bitter taste in the mouths of the Buckeyes and their title-hungry fans. OSU darted out to a 24–0 start, receiving immediate and plentiful contributions from freshmen Jared Sullinger and Aaron Craft, and benefitting from William Buford’s most productive season and record-setting shooting displays by Jon Diebler. The Buckeyes won the Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles, and headed into the NCAA Tournament as the nation’s clear-cut best team. The dream season continued with an eye-popping 7-for-7 effort from deep by beloved senior David Lighty in the round of 32. However, it all came crashing down with a last-second loss to Kentucky in the Sweet 16, a setback that figures to drive the returnees.
In fact, Sullinger passed up top-five draft status to return — “I’ve got a lot more winning to do,” he says — and Buford also put off his pro career after a dreadful shooting night against UK.
Still, the Buckeyes are going to need a major boost from their incoming class to contend once again with Lighty, Diebler and center Dallas Lauderdale having graduated.
Buckeyes Key Stat: 4
In four out of the last six seasons, Ohio State has been either a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
The possibilities are boundless for Sullinger, an obvious candidate for National Player of the Year honors. Blessed with a powerful lower body, soft hands, natural footwork, court smarts and a résumé filled with victories, he is likely the best low-post option in the country and the main reason why the Buckeyes are capable of going very far once again.
Sullinger is best suited for the 4-spot, and the coaching staff wants to see if freshman Amir Williams can fill the void at center where Lauderdale once stood. “With Amir’s size and defensive presence, I think that he could be a very big factor in what we’re doing defensively,” coach Thad Matta says.
Williams, though, endured an up-and-down prep career. If he’s too raw or inconsistent, look for the staff to lean on Boston College transfer Evan Ravenel, a sturdier albeit less dynamic performer.
Also, the coaches will pair up Sullinger in the frontcourt with Deshaun Thomas for stretches of games. A slick, offensive-minded lefty, Thomas is in line for major playing time if he can hold up to the grind. “His big thing is learning to push through when he gets tired,” Matta says. “Deshaun is a huge key for next year’s team because we know he can put the ball in the basket.”
Youngsters J.D. Weatherspoon and Trey McDonald don’t figure to make the rotation but possess some specialty skills.
The Buckeyes advanced to the 2007 national title game with a pair of natural point guards — Mike Conley Jr. and Jamar Butler — playing the majority of the minutes in the backcourt.
This season, newcomer Shannon Scott, son of former NBA point man Charlie Scott, could bring the same dynamic when paired with Craft. Scott’s skill set and readiness to help with the ball-handling duties could allow Craft to put even more energy into his airtight defensive skills — and put more passes right on the money for Buford, one of the top shooters in the Big Ten.
The Buckeyes also can utilize combo guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. and have a pair of big wings in sophomore Jordan Silbert (6'4") and freshman Sam Thompson (6'7"). Silbert could be ready to flourish after a year in the fray. “We want him to be able to knock down open shots but also play with a little bit of a reckless abandon on defense,” Matta says.
This is now a top-10 program, and Matta has reloaded once again. He’s also bolstered the schedule, as trips to Kansas and South Carolina have been added to a visit by Florida and a date with Duke in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
We’ll know by January if the Buckeyes are again capable of seizing another Big Ten crown and lofty NCAA seed. And even if there is trepidation to that point, Matta is as good as it gets at getting teams to peak in February and thrive in March.
Replacing a versatile swingman and defender like Lighty is nearly impossible. And the departure of the Big Ten’s all-time 3-point shooter — Diebler — also leaves a mark. However, OSU has laid the groundwork for success.
Matta may have as many healthy pieces as he’s ever had, and he knows how to teach unselfish play. In other words, don’t count this team out — of anything.
Big Ten Prediction: 1st
NCAA Tournament Prediction: Final Four