Next up in the Around the Big Ten series is an Ohio State preview courtesy of Chris of Eleven Warriors, one of the premier Ohio State blogs on the internet. Make sure to check out past previews: Indiana, Michigan State, and Minnesota.
Ho-hum. Another year, another roster overhaul for Thad Matta’s Buckeyes. After a disappointing finish to the regular season, Matta’s squad came together to win the 2008 NIT Championship but the nucleus from that team is long gone. Jamar Butler, Kosta Koufos and Othello Hunter have moved on, taking with them 50% of the scoring, 46% of the rebounding and 46% of the assists.
If there is a silver lining in losing his three most productive starters, it’s that Matta learned from last season’s chemistry disaster created when Butler spent the summer at home while Koufos played overseas resulting in a team that never really put it together until it was too late to earn a bid to the Dance. Hoping to avoid deja vu, the 2008-09 roster has spent the entire summer together on and off the court with junior David Lighty serving as the team leader. Certainly, it takes more than chemistry for a team to be successful but when you consider Matta has at least six new faces that could find themselves in the rotation (4 freshmen, 2 juco transfers), it is critical for Matta to define roles to keep everyone on the same page.
Speaking of new faces, Matta welcomes in another strong recruiting class led by one-and-done center BJ Mullens (7’0″, 275), Ohio’s Mr. Basketball William Buford, point guard Anthony “Noopy” Crater and guard Walter Offut.
On the surface, it looks as if all four could see significant playing time this season led by Mullens, Buford and Crater. Mullens is already projected as a top 5 pick in next year’s draft although his offensive game needs some polish. He’ll also need to toughen up to be a factor on the glass in the rough and tumble Big Ten. Buford, on the other hand, is a gifted scorer from the wing flashing both the ability to stroke the J and score off the bounce.
Crater, originally from Flint, Michigan, will likely split time at the point with juco transfer Jeremie Simmons after spending a year honing his skills at Brewster Academy in Massachusettes. We’ve seen very little of Crater but his game is more of the true point guard ilk in which he always looks to pass first. Conversely, Simmons was the leading scorer (21 ppg) on his juco team earning D2 Player of the Year honors while still dropping five dimes per contest.
Helping the new guys along will be up to Lighty and a trio of sophomores in Evan Turner, Dallas Lauderdale and Jon Diebler.
Lighty (6’5″) is the only player left from the rotation that played in the NCAA Championship game loss to Florida. Last season, he seemed to regress a bit in the wake of Oden, Conley and Cook turning pro. He averaged 9 ppg and served as a defensive stopper in the rare situations in which OSU didn’t feature a sometimes stifling match up zone. Look for Lighty to build on his 9 ppg average and he’ll be more of a factor on the glass for a team lacking glass eaters.
Turner (6’7″, 205) is Ohio State’s most talented perimeter player and if he can cut down on his turnovers, he should challenge for first or second team all-conference. When under control, Turner is a fluid scorer and rebounds extremely well. Look for him to be OSU’s go to guy down the stretch taking advantage of his ability to both score and create shots for teammates.
One of the teammates Turner needs to create looks for is Diebler. He struggled mightily with his three point shot last season (29%) but kept jacking them up at a rate allowing him to break OSU’s record for triples made by a freshman. If he can’t improve his shot, ball handling and on-ball defense, he could see his minutes turned over to Buford.
With a lack of depth on the front line, it is crucial that Lauderdale (6’8″, 255) be a key contributor on the low block. The man with the awesome porn star name averaged only seven minutes last season but really came alive during the NIT run and those in the know say he had a strong off season. Whether or not he and Mullens can be effective and stay out of foul trouble is one of the major keys to Ohio State returning to the NCAA tournament.
Conceptually, Matta has stated he prefers to go back to man to man to help OSU’s poor rebounding margin but he may not be able to do that unless both Mullens and Lauderdale are on the floor together. Couple that with neither being particularly adept at the hedge-and-recover and I think we’ll see the zone at least half the time. Plus, with all the length and depth on the wings, OSU could again extend the zone to a 3/4 court zone press.
The outlook for this team is all over the map due to the youth and inexperience. That said, I agree with the experts predicting a fourth place conference finish though third is not out of the realm of possibility. Of course, this would also mean an NCAA berth which is a more than fair expectation. How far they can go in the Dance falls depends largely on four things. First, Simmons and Crater must prove they can handle the point guard duties. Second, a go to guy must emerge (Turner or Lighty). Thirdly, roles must be defined and accepted before conference play and lastly, Mullens and Lauderdale have to give OSU something offensively but more importantly, they’ve got to keep OSU competitive on the defensive backboard.