After reaching the NCAA Final Four for the second time in six seasons, Thad Matta’s Ohio State men’s basketball team will have a decidedly different look in 2012-13.
Matta will conduct his first practice with his 11-man team on Friday. But All-American center Jared Sullinger and high scoring wing William Buford will be nowhere to be found. Sullinger, a Columbus native, left OSU after two huge seasons to enter the NBA draft. Buford wrapped up his four-year career last spring tied for third on the school’s career scoring list.
The Buckeyes, 31-8 last year, won a third straight Big Ten championship (and fifth in Matta’s eight years at the school). They advanced through the NCAA’s East Region, defeating top-seeded Syracuse 77-70 to advance to the Final Four. But they fell to Kansas 64-62 in a national semifinal game, missing a chance to reach the NCAA title game for the second time under Matta. (Check out a video interview above with Matta.)
In preseason magazines and previews, Ohio State is considered as a national top-10 contender. That’s good, but Big Ten rivals Indiana, Michigan and Michigan State are also viewed as top-10 teams this season.
“Probably the ones who have us rated really high haven’t seen us practice,” Matta joked at the team’s media day Thursday. “But it’s going to be interesting. We’ve been able to work out, so we have a decent feel. Tomorrow, we will get into the grind of it all. I don’t know what everybody else has.”
Points could be at a premium for the Buckeyes as Sullinger and Buford combined for 32 points and just over 14 rebounds a game last year.
“Our defense has to be really good,” Matta said. “We will need to generate some easy baskets. But one thing I have also seen is that everybody across the board skillwise has gotten a lot better. It seems like we are shooting the ball better and our ballhandling appears to be better.
“But when you lose two great scorers, it is difficult.”
“All spots are open,” Matta said. “From the standpoint of what this team ultimately needs, it will play itself out. The three guys who are back obviously gained a tremendous amount of experience in those roles. With that said, I want to make that as competitive as we possibly can.
“The more competition we can breed on a daily basis in practice is a good thing.”
Thomas came alive in the NCAA Tournament, when he averaged over 20 points a game. He ended up averaging 15.9 points and 5.4 rebounds per game. He could be in a position to average 20 or more points over the course of the season as a key offensive weapon for the Buckeyes. He has gained some preseason All-American honors.
Craft, who averaged 8.6 points, 4.6 assists and 2.5 steals per game, is regarded as one of the nation’s top point guards. He missed two weeks over the summer due to an ankle injury, but is back to full-go.
"I couldn’t do anything because I was in a cast, so that was very challenging for me,” Craft said. “I had to watch the guys work out and shoot and play. That was probably the toughest thing. Getting back, it was good for my entire body to take time off. I wouldn’t have done that on my own.
"I felt energized and ready to go when I got back. It was probably the best thing for me."
The team’s lone senior is center Evan Ravenel, who served as Sullinger’s primary backup last year. Matta will be counting on a talented but inexperienced five-man sophomore class to step up this season. That group includes 6-11 center Amir Williams, power forward Trey McDonald, wings Sam Thompson and LaQuinton Ross and backup point guard Shannon Scott.
Freshman shooting guard Amedeo Della Valle was OSU’s lone signee in the 2012 class. He and walk-on guard Alex Rogers, a junior, round out the roster.
Matta was asked who would be in his starting lineup. Besides the three returnees, it appears that Ravenel or Williams will start inside and either Ross or Thompson will start on the wing.
"I told them the other day, I’m going to start the five best defenders," Matta said. "I think from the standpoint of trying to get those guys to understand where I’m coming from, I think we’ll have great depth this year.
"There’s a lot of quality out there, and I’m excited to see these guys compete as we’re getting ready to practice."
Craft was asked what it might be like for Ohio State to be in an underdog role in such a tough Big Ten this year.
"I have no problem with that role,” Craft said. “he past two years, whether we've deserved it or not, we've been picked to win and be successful. All of my life, I've played that underdog role. It's a good place to be."
One of Matta’s aims this season is building a cohesive team. He said outside forces impacted last year’s squad.
"This team has to be in the 'O',” Matta said. “If somebody gets outside, we're done. The outside influences, if they're able to pull you out, we're done."
OSU will play an exhibition game against Walsh on Oct. 30 at Value City Arena before the Buckeyes open the season against Marquette on Nov. 9 on the USS Yorktown for the Carrier Classic in Charleston, S.C. A match-up at Duke Nov. 28 and a rematch at home against Kansas Dec. 22 also loom large. The Big Ten season opens Jan. 2 against Nebraska, leading up to the Big Ten tournament March 14-17 in Chicago.
“You hear a lot about playing at Cameron,” Thomas said. “I think we’re looking forward to that.”
Stay tuned for photos and interviews with various OSU players over the days ahead.