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Buckeye ballers in position for title run

Michael Parkman / Lantern photographer

I thought the 2010-11 Ohio State men’s basketball team would be good, that it would be in the upper echelon of the Big Ten. Probably top 10 good. But I thought Evan Turner’s departure would keep it from being an elite team.

Boy was I wrong about the now-No. 1 Buckeye ballers.

If anything, when Turner bolted Columbus for the professional ranks, he removed the shackles from senior David Lighty and junior William Buford. It allowed for freshman point guard Aaron Craft to get the necessary playing time to showcase his talents as a passer and defensive menace.

Most importantly, “The Villain’s” exit has allowed for OSU’s offense to run through freshman big man Jared Sullinger, who is not only a double-double machine, with eight on the season, but a legitimate Player of the Year candidate. He won’t turn 19 until March, the month in which he can make or break his legacy in what will probably be his only year in Columbus.

This team certainly has justifiable dreams of a run to the Final Four. But what about winning it all?

The last team dancing in early April exhibits three characteristics year after year: veteran leadership, tournament heartbreak and superiority on either offense or defense.

Look back at the past 10 years or so of college basketball. With the exception of Syracuse in 2003, teams laden with juniors and seniors have won national championships. Connecticut in 2004; North Carolina in 2005 and 2009; Florida in 2006 and 2007; Kansas in 2008; and Duke last season. Experience matters.

The strongest teams also bond through their failures and turn their mistakes into winning moments. Last year’s Duke squad was full of players marred by early exits in March. The 2009 North Carolina Tar Heels were blown out in the 2008 Final Four by eventual champion Kansas, which also experienced its share of March malfunctions before being crowned national champ.

A popular sports cliché is that defense wins championships. Last season, Duke held teams to an average of 40 percent shooting and 61 points per game.

However, a top-notch offense can produce wins too. Two years ago, UNC had the nation’s second-ranked scoring offense at 90 points per game. The 2008 Kansas Jayhawks were excellent on both ends of the floor, as they were second in field goal percentage offense and third in field goal percentage defense.

Does OSU display all three characteristics?

It has a five-year man in Lighty, two four-year guys in Jon Diebler and Dallas Lauderdale and a three-year player in Buford. Veteran leadership: check.

Tennessee ousted OSU in the Sweet 16 last season. In 2009, Siena beat the Buckeyes in double-overtime in the Big Dance’s first round. Lighty was there for the loss in the National Championship to Florida in 2007. Tournament heartbreak: check.

OSU is fourth in the nation in field goal percentage offense and puts up 80 points per game. Superiority on either offense or defense: check.

However, OSU would be wise to tighten its defense. Teams are prone to streaky shooting come tournament time. Long seasons mean tired legs, which lead to more bricks and air balls. In any case, it’s not only Final Four or bust for Thad Matta and company — it’s championship or bust.

This is the best chance Matta will have to win a title for a while, given the massive roster overhaul next year. Lighty, Lauderdale and Diebler will be gone. Sullinger and Buford likely will depart too.

Hopefully now, instead of proving me wrong, the team will make me a prophet.

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