April 17, 2014

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Ohio State basketball: Stars leave, but OSU keeps on winning

COLUMBUS — For the second year in a row, Ohio State has just one senior on its roster.

Thomas

Save your sympathy.

A year ago, with just one fourth-year player, the Buckeyes went all the way to the Final Four before falling to Kansas in the national semifinals.

Maybe the term “senior leadership” doesn’t apply at Ohio State, where it seems there’s annually a huge turnover of top players yet the Buckeyes and coach Thad Matta just keep chugging right along, racking up 20-win seasons, NCAA Tournament appearances and Big Ten titles.

Although it’ll be hard to replace two-time All-American Jared Sullinger, who left early for the NBA, and senior scorer William Buford (graduation), the Buckeyes always seem to find a way.

“Will and Jared, they are great guys who helped us build a tradition here,” returning starter Lenzelle Smith Jr. said. “When they left, the tradition and the legacy is left behind. So we carry that on.”

The Buckeyes have reloaded from last year’s 31-8 Big Ten regular-season co-championship season and are plotting how to get even better with a team built around the prodigious talents of Deshaun Thomas, Aaron Craft and Smith — along with several players set to step into the spotlight.

“This team is athletic,” said Matta, whose last couple of teams have won big despite not being terribly fast or versatile. “I want them to use what they’ve got there. It correlates back to, hopefully, we’re going to be able to score some off of our defense. That’s why a major emphasis on the preseason will be getting our defense down.”

It’s nothing new at Ohio State for a top player, let alone a consensus top-five player in the nation such as Sullinger, to leave and for the next team to be as good if not better. After all, in his eight seasons with the Buckeyes, Matta has lost Greg Oden, Mike Conley and Daequan Cook to the 2007 NBA first round after playing one season, Kosta Koufos a year later, Byron Mullens a year after that and national player of the year Evan Turner, who was the No. 2 pick after his junior season in 2010.

A year after Oden, Conley and Cook went in the first round, the Buckeyes went 24-13 and won the NIT. After losing Koufos, they went 22-11. The season after the departure of Mullens, who like Koufos also left after just one season, Ohio State was 29-8, won the Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles and made it to the NCAA’s round of 16. Turner left a year early and Matta churned out a 34-3 record, won the conference tournament and regular season title and again went to the regional semifinals.

Matta’s message is a simple one to those who are left behind: Don’t try to single-handedly make up for who’s not around.

“Those guys, you can’t replace them,” Matta said. “You say to your guys, ‘Look, I don’t need you to be Jared or William. I need you to be yourselves and be the best you can be.’”

Sullinger contributed 17.5 points, 9.2 rebounds and a lion’s share of the attention from defenses last year. Buford was good for 14.5 points and was a streaky shooter who ended his career tied for third in scoring at Ohio State with program icon Jerry Lucas.

This year’s Buckeyes will be built around the big two of Thomas and Craft — who made up 40 percent of the preseason All-Big Ten choices even though Ohio State was only the No. 3 pick in the league race.

Thomas toyed with jumping to the NBA after averaging 15.9 points and 5.4 rebounds a game in Sullinger’s shadow last year. Craft, a classmate, is back for his third year running the offense from his point guard spot, where he was selected as the Big Ten’s top defender last March. He hit for 8.8 points and 4.6 assists a game. The numbers for both are expected to go up this season.

Thomas was a silent partner last year, not taking an active role in leading the team. But after a strong showing in the NCAAs last spring, he learned he had to assert himself more.

“At the end of the season, I knew that I could be a great leader for this team. I am not shy anymore. I’m not afraid of anybody. I can say things to them and talk to them,” the 6-foot-7 lefty said.

Smith is a jack of all trades who can hit a three, shut down anyone from a guard to a power forward on defense and handle the ball.

Craft doesn’t believe the Buckeyes lack for weapons.

“Without Jared and Will we have to find ways to score the basketball,” Craft said. “We’ll just try to take what the defense gives us. We have a lot of guys around us that worked really hard and can knock down a lot of shots.”

Matta, who is 221-65 in eight years at Ohio State for a sterling average of 28-8, believes this team is deeper and can do more things than some of the stellar Ohio State teams recently.

“We don’t need a superstar (although) we’ll have some nights where guys (play like one),” he said. “We’ve got guys who can do certain things. They have to do those things all the time.”

The big man will likely be 6-11 Amir Williams, who has added strength and now is a formidable shot-blocker. Lone senior Evan Ravenel and Trey McDonald, both 6-8, are quality backups.

The other starting slot could be filled by either speedy swingman Sam Thompson or intriguing perimeter shooter LaQuinton Ross. Shannon Scott, son of former NBA and North Carolina star Charlie Scott, worked on his shot all summer and should be a solid sub behind Craft and Smith.

The Buckeyes will be different from a year ago. That doesn’t mean they’ll be worse.

“We’re going to be a very, very, very fast team,” Thompson said. “I don’t think we had that type of speed last year. We didn’t have that type of athleticism last year. It’ll be exciting to get out and put some pressure on the ball, get out on transition, run and make some plays.”