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Thad Matta unveiled his 10th Ohio State men’s basketball team at Thursday’s media day. Due to new NCAA practice rules, the Buckeyes have actually been practicing for almost two weeks. (Check out his comments on his new team in the video above.)
Matta welcomes back four starters from last year’s team that went 29-8 overall. That team won the Big Ten tournament and advanced to the NCAA West Regional final before a heartbreaking loss to Wichita State. Gone is wing Deshaun Thomas, who led the Big Ten in scoring. He opted to leave school a year early for the NBA.
He welcomes back senior guards Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith Jr., junior wing Sam Thompson and junior center Amir Williams as well as a number of key reserves. That group includes junior forward LaQuinton Ross, who stepped up during the postseason last year.
“Collectively, I think guys have got to score more,” Matta said when asked how the Buckeyes will make up for Thomas averaging nearly 20 points and six rebounds per game. “Guys have had games where they showed they could put the ball in the basket. Sam had that at Penn State, Lenzelle has done it, Aaron has done it, Shannon (Scott) has done it.
“It needs to be more of a well-rounded flow to our offense. We tried put a big premium in the off-season on shooting the basketball and getting better offensively skill-wise.”
Coming off his big late-season run (including a three-pointer to beat Arizona in the NCAA West Regional semifinal), Ross figures to step in for Thomas.
“LaQuinton finished that season on a high note,” Matta said. “I think he hit his stride in terms of understanding what we needed him to do and how we needed him to do it. He has a much broader vision offensively than maybe he had in the past.
“A lot of the turnovers he had last year, we haven’t seen those. He’s more patient and he’s seeing things.”
At the same time, 6-11, 250-pound Amir Williams will be counted on to become a bigger contributor at center. He split time with departed senior Evan Ravenel last year.
“What we’re looking for is consistency over greatness,” Matta said. “Just give us consistent, solid basketball. Amir is probably in the best shape of his life. The biggest thing with him is he can’t operate in a comfort zone. He has to push himself and make plays. I have been very pleased with his offensive production so far in practice.
“His defensive awareness is getting better. He is still blocking shots. But we need him to be more aware and plug the middle for us.”
Matta is also getting his first look at a pair of promising freshmen in combo guard Kameron Williams and forward Marc Loving.
“I have been very, very pleased with both of them,” Matta said. “I’ve almost been taken aback. Kam has been out sick a couple days with strep throat. Marc has a great feel for the game of basketball in terms of cutting and moving without the basketball. He finishes well. He has shot the ball well from behind the arc.
“I have been pleasantly surprised with what he has brought to the table so far. It is probably a bit more than I thought it would be.”
Matta said, as always, he will demand a lot from his team defensively.
“We’re never going to go away from our defense,” Matta said. “That was maybe the best thing we did collectively last year as a team was our defense. At the end of the year, they took pride in that.”
The Buckeyes were on their way to a second consecutive Final Four appearance before they were derailed by Wichita State in the regional final in Los Angeles (70-66). Matta was asked how that result has stuck with and driven his team during the last six months.
“It has been brought up,” Matta said. “You were on the verge of going to your second straight Final Four, which is very very rare in college basketball today. The way we played for 30 minutes of that game – at that particular juncture – was very uncharacteristic of us. I think the opponent had a lot to do with it. They played a tremendous game and they were playing at a high level at that time.
“Those are the type of things you want guys to think about in the off-season. They had an opportunity in front of them and maybe they did not play their best when they needed to.”
Preseason magazines have the Buckeyes installed as a top-10 team and a possible Big Ten contender alongside Michigan State and others. In his nine years at OSU, the Buckeyes have won five Big Ten regular season titles, four Big Ten tournaments, been to five NCAA Sweet 16s and two Final Fours.
In the last four years, OSU has averaged 30.8 wins per season. Matta was asked what the expectations for this team should be.
“Coming out of yesterday’s practice, there were probably four things we have to get better at,” Matta said. “I don’t know if I could give a true projection or expectation for this team yet. I think we have a chance to have a really, really good basketball team. I have loved the energy and cohesiveness of us.
“It’s early and there will be ups and downs in a season. We’ve talked about it. I’d say this: I am very excited about this season.”
Matta’s team will host Walsh in its exhibition on Nov. 3. The season opener against Morgan State will be Nov. 9 at Value City Arena.
We have comments from several of the returning players. We will have video interview segments with Craft, Williams and Ross.
* Craft on making up for Thomas’ departure – “I think as a team, we’ve done a great job this spring and summer and understanding we have to shoot the ball better as a team. It can’t be just one guy. You can’t replace Deshaun with one person. Even with him, we shot one of the worst percentages in Coach’s time here at Ohio State.
“We have to knock down open shots. We have to elevate our shooting percentage. That opens up so many things at the offensive end.”
* Craft on reworking his shot mechanics – “I worked hard. I don’t know what happened last year. We started from square one this spring. It started with Coach Jent and then with Coach Paulus. It was frustrating at times. We got to a point where I could come in by myself and feel good shots and bad shots.
“The worst thing I can do is overthink it. I’ve put in the work and I’ve put in the time. I just have to go out and have fun and trust the work I have put in.”
* Ross on having the chance at a big year in replacing Thomas – “I try not to listen to it. I owe it to the fans to show them what I can do. They’ve been hearing the hype and they’ve heard what I can do. I want to show them this year. They saw a little bit of it at the end of last year. I’m going to try and do it this year.”
* Ross on becoming a starter – “I don’t think it’s a big deal. Last year when I was doing my thing at the end of the year, I didn’t start any of those games, either. I just came in and did what I had to do. When I got the opportunities to come, I was able to produce.”
* Amir Williams on his motto this year: “Whole new attitude” – “I want to become more dominant and aggressive this year. I want to become that inside presence that we didn’t have last year. That’s what we need the whole season if we want to win a national championship and get where we want to be.”
* Williams on making an impact inside -- “It’s a lot of confidence. In the Big Ten, there is a lot of bumping and grinding in the post. They are not going to call fouls in the post. You have to be able to finish plays. You’re going to get fouled and you have to make the shot, too.”
* Thompson on where he has worked to improve – “Making jump shots has to be a big part of my game. If I am shooting the ball well, it’s another thing opposing defenses have to worry about. It’s something I want to keep working on and keep getting better at. When you’re making your jump shot, it opens up other things. Guys close out harder on you and you can go around and get to the rim.”
* Thompson on comparisons with former Indiana star Victor Oladipo – “You’re not the first person who has said that. I heard that some last year. Obviously, he was a great player last year. It showed with his work ethic. He made himself into the player he is today. He is an inspirational player and an example of the type of player I hope to be.”
* Smith on sharing the leadership role with his fellow senior Craft – “He is the every day, vocal guy. But when we get in tight situations and guys are tired of hearing the same voice, I can shift in. I’m fine with that. I try to lead by example.”
Stay tuned for more.
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