Oct. 4, 2012
A reporter asked Thad Matta a simple question about the health of Aaron Craft after the point guard underwent a minor surgery on his ankle — and Matta decided to have a little fun.
“We’re not going to talk redshirting until we know for sure,” the coach said while trying to look solemn. “No, he’s fine, he’s fine. He’ll be good to go.”
It’s the kind of joke that can halt the heartbeats of Buckeye fans. Craft wasn’t projected to be such a key performer, but the feisty junior is now the catalyst of Matta’s ninth Ohio State team, especially with the departure of All-America post player Jared Sullinger and wing William Buford.
Sullinger’s inside force helped the Buckeyes to a share of another Big Ten title and trip to the Final Four, while Buford left campus with as many points (1,990) as the great Jerry Lucas, good for third all-time at Ohio State.
Craft can’t replace their production, but he’s proved himself to be perhaps the best on-ball defender in the country and knows how to get the ball to the right spots on offense. The Buckeyes once again are young but believe in their heady on-court leader.
That’s important, because Matta will have to reshape his team after not employing a particularly deep rotation last season.
Sullinger’s reliability in the paint will be greatly missed, as the Buckeyes no longer have a go-to player in the post or a top-notch defensive rebounder. However, power forward Deshaun Thomas is a matchup headache who is ready to explode this season. A uniquely talented 6-7 lefty, Thomas was a point-producing machine as an Indiana prepster and still has a knack for scoring the ball. But he’s beginning to flourish in all areas of his game.
“I think the biggest thing with Deshaun is just continuing to make him a well-rounded basketball player,” Matta says. “Deshaun knows there are things he has to do to help our basketball team and things he has to get better at to help us win.”
Thomas displayed his takeover ability sporadically last season and during the Buckeyes’ NCAA Tournament run. It’s not out of the question for him to average 20 points per game this season.
Amir Williams was too raw to provide regular help last season, but he’s made enough strides for the coaches to believe he can take over at center. That would be ideal and allow functional big man Evan Ravenel to sub in at the 4 and 5 spots as needed.
The top small forward could be LaQuinton Ross, a smooth outside shooter with good length (6-8) and notable ball skills — although he has to display defensive improvement.
Whether Ross is a starter or not, the highly athletic Sam Thompson should see lots of playing time on the wing. Meanwhile, classmate Trey McDonald still searches for a niche.
It all begins with Craft, who sets the tone at both ends of the floor. He’ll battle Penn State’s Tim Frazier once again for Big Ten supremacy in assists and steals. Craft will receive help from Shannon Scott, who struggled mightily with his shooting as a freshman last season.
Lenzelle Smith Jr., who was heroic in Ohio State’s Final Four-clinching win over Syracuse, continues to show impressive development. He beat out Jordan Sibert (who has since transferred) for the 2-guard spot last year on his hustle and board work, and he eventually turned into a reliable outside threat.
The coaching staff also hopes to benefit from firepower off the bench from freshman Amedeo Della Valle, an Italian sharpshooter. The Buckeyes need to be better from 3-point range without a proven scorer in the paint.
Matta wasn’t able to secure an immediate replacement for Sullinger while on the recruiting trail and is back to operating with a limited roster and just one senior.
However, Ohio State has a horse to ride in Thomas, and one of the best leaders and defenders in the nation in Craft. The Buckeyes are a high-effort, athletic outfit, which means they should defend well yet again.
But how far they go will depend upon the willingness of young players to properly fill in the cracks.
“Anytime you lose great players you’ve got to redefine roles and you’ve got to get guys to have an appreciation for their role,” Matta says.