College basketball season is creeping up fast, and Athlon Sports is counting down to Midnight Madness and the start of practice on Oct. 17.
No. 20 Ohio State enters 2014-15 without trusty point guard Aaron Craft. Thad Matta, as usual, has a plan with players like Shannon Scott and transfer Anthony Lee ready to take the next step for a Big Ten contender.
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To say that Thad Matta has given Ohio State 10 good years is to give short shrift to a Hall of Famer in waiting. He never gets labeled as the premier coach in the business, but the solid work and successful seasons roll on. Matta has racked up five Big Ten titles and a sparkling postseason record that includes four league tournament championships and a pair of appearances in the Final Four.
Still, OSU’s latest effort showed that even the elite programs are not immune to a subpar season.
The Buckeyes fell out of league contention and were dumped in their NCAA Tournament opener for just the third time in program history. Adding insult was the fact that the season-ending loss came at the hands of in-state foe Dayton.
Regaining some mojo won’t be easy with catalyst and defensive pest Aaron Craft among OSU’s three departed starters. Still, Matta knows how to reload and find lofty results.
“When I came here, our goal was to try to build a top-10 college basketball program — not that you’re going to win the thing every year but be in the hunt,” the coach says.
No. 20 Ohio State Facts & Figures
Last season: 25-10, 10-8 Big Ten
Postseason: NCAA round of 64
Consecutive NCAAs: 6
Coach: Thad Matta (275-83 at Ohio State, 121-53 Big Ten)
Big Ten Projection: Fourth
Postseason Projection: NCAA round of 32
Amir Williams and Trey McDonald are seniors, but Matta has bolstered the interior both in the short term and for the future. Along with landing in-state prospect David Bell and accepting a transfer from former Virginia Tech center Trevor Thompson, the Buckeyes have welcomed senior Anthony Lee, a sturdy 6’9’’ graduate transfer from Temple who figures to be an immediate top option in the post.
Williams and McDonald were largely ineffective last season, combining for less than 10 points and eight rebounds per game. Lee should approach that productivity by himself. He averaged 13.6 points and 8.6 rebounds at Temple last season; the latter figure led the American Athletic Conference.
The 6’11” Thompson will have to sit out this season but the coaches are excited to have an athletic big man who showed flashes last season — like when he scored 15 points at Duke. He will have three years of eligibility.
Newcomer Keita Bates-Diop is a skilled combo forward who should help OSU on both ends of the court. The similarly built Marc Loving also shows promise, but he hit the freshman wall last season with eight scoreless games in February and March combined.
Despite his 6’4” frame, freshman Jae’Sean Tate is a junkyard dog capable of fitting in at forward. He’s a willing defender who has a knack for tracking down rebounds and loose balls.
The senior sendoff for Craft and Lenzelle Smith Jr. was both a joyous occasion and sad reminder that the program would have to move on without two proven warriors. They set the defensive tone and won at a high rate, even for the Matta era.
Fortunately, Shannon Scott will be comfortable taking over full-time duties at point guard, Sam Thompson could be ready for an all-league senior season on the wing, and the Buckeyes are blessed with two dynamic young talents at shooting guard in freshmen D’Angelo Russell and Kam Williams.
Scott’s numbers from last season, projected over 40 minutes, basically mirror Craft’s. Plus, he is a two-time member of the Big Ten All-Defensive Team. OSU’s leading returning scorer (7.9 ppg last season), Thompson also is a topflight defender and premier athlete. He isn’t likely to double his point production and replace LaQuinton Ross’ output, but he is capable of becoming a consistent double-figure scorer.
Williams was slowed by mononucleosis in preseason camp and ended up sitting out last season. Still, those who observed practice believe he could be an instant factor. Russell, meanwhile, may be the key to the entire campaign. The Louisville native won a national title at the prep level last spring and appears to be just the type of alpha male this team needs.
The Buckeyes are an interesting collection of talent. Matta’s roster is devoid of superstars — at least at the moment — but is deeper and more dangerous-looking than a year ago. Plus, Ohio State should be hungrier after a rare flameout in the NCAA Tournament. Thompson and Scott must embrace leadership, Lee needs to be a board-eater, and someone else, most likely Russell, has to show he can make winning plays. If it all falls in place, watch out.
Anthony Lee is a pest on the boards who often gets to the foul line because of his activity. He’s already slotted in at power forward. A smooth lefty, D’Angelo Russell just needs to show his skills translate. Keita Bates-Diop can shoot and pass effectively for his size and should fit OSU’s system. Jae’Sean Tate is a scrapper worthy of a role, while David Bell is a project who is likely to redshirt.