Andy Gottesman / Multimedia Editor
The Ohio State men’s basketball team’s season came to a disappointing end Friday with a 62-60 loss to No. 4-seeded Kentucky. With no more Buckeye basketball to be played this season, looking to the future is the only option.
Though the season just concluded, much can already be determined about next year’s squad. The team will return two starters, freshman forward Jared Sullinger and junior guard William Buford, assuming they hold true to their stated intentions not to enter the NBA Draft. The Buckeyes also will welcome back freshman point guard Aaron Craft, who was fifth on the team in minutes played, and freshman forward Deshaun Thomas.
Beyond those four seemingly known commodities, the future of OSU basketball becomes less clear.
Recently named first-team All-American, Sullinger is arguably the most talented player the Buckeyes will have next season. The 6-foot-9 post player led the team in points and rebounds last season with 17.2 and 10.1 per game, respectively.
“He’s extremely productive. … He commands a lot of respect,” coach Thad Matta said. “He’s a great player.”
The forward also took home Freshman of the Year honors and remains a finalist for the Naismith Award, given to the nation’s best player. With a year of experience under his belt, Sullinger is expected to excel futher during his sophomore campaign.
The OSU youngster is likely to be the nation’s front-runner for the Naismith Award next season, regardless of whether he brings home the hardware this year. Sullinger is making sure to put in the work during the offseason.
Following his team’s final loss of the season, Sullinger said, “I know I am going to be back in the gym as soon as we get back.”
Although Sullinger likely will be the Buckeye who receives the most attention, Buford will be the one with the most experience. As a senior, Buford will be the only player on the OSU roster who will start the season with more than one year of program experience. He has three full years in the system.
Besides leadership, Buford brings a shooter’s touch to the 2011–12 squad.
“Will’s an awesome guy,” Craft said. “He’s definitely willing to take his shots, and he (has) knocked them down.”
Buford shot 44.2 percent from 3-point range this past season, good for the third-best 3-point shooting season in school history. The guard was also second in scoring on the team, with 14.4 points per game. Buford sits at 22nd in school history in points scored, with 1,424. If he maintains this past season’s scoring pace next season, he will finish fourth.
With Sullinger expected to score in the post and Buford expected to score from the outside, Craft will be expected to push the defense and facilitate the offense.
Throughout the season, the freshman point guard was praised for his on-ball defensive abilities. Craft, who averaged a team-high two steals a game, embraces the role of lockdown defender.
“I’ve always just enjoyed doing it, even in AAU. I always had to guard … the team’s best player,” he said. “It’s something I’ve grown into.”
With fifth-year senior forward David Lighty, whom Matta often has called the best defender in college basketball, departing from the program, Craft will be able to take over the role of the team’s best defender.
Besides his defense, Craft will be required to set up the offense from his position. The freshman was fourth in the Big Ten in assists last season, with 4.8 per game.
“I think as you really get to know Aaron, you get to spend time with him, you watch him develop. It’s amazing,” Matta said. “He’s been so steady throughout the course of the year.”
Craft played his best basketball late in the season, logging an OSU-record 15 assists against George Mason in the NCAA Tournament.
Thomas came off the bench last season to average 7.5 points and 3.5 rebounds in just 14 minutes per game for the Buckeyes. With the departure of wing players Lighty and Jon Diebler, Thomas likely will be a starter next season.
Despite his single-digit scoring average, Thomas scored double figures 10 times during the season and notched 20 or more points on three occasions.
“I think we’ve seen, throughout the course, that Deshaun can score in bunches,” Matta said. “He’s a very talented player, and he really has a knack … for finding open areas, finding the seams.”
Besides providing instant offense, Thomas’ 62 offensive rebounds were good for second on the team. With added minutes next season, expect those numbers to rise.
Craft and Thomas will likely join Sullinger and Buford in the starting lineup next year. But determining who will fill that fifth spot, and how Matta will use his bench, will be more difficult to determine.
The remaining player with any significant playing time from this past season is freshman guard Jordan Sibert, who appeared in 25 games and averaged 8.3 minutes a game.
Starting Sibert would create a relatively small starting five. Matta has shown a tendency to start multiple post players in the past.
This past season, the coach started the 6-foot-9 Sullinger and 6-foot-8 senior center Dallas Lauderdale. If he wants to go big again, he seems to have two options: Boston College transfer forward Evan Ravenel and incoming freshman center Amir Williams.
Ravenel averaged just 3.3 points and 2.4 rebounds in 10.5 minutes off the bench when he played for Boston College. Despite the underwhelming numbers, the forward does have a year in the program on his side.
Williams, on the other hand, could become the newest freshman post player to start at OSU. The 6-foot-9 center is the nation’s No. 7 center and No. 73 overall recruit, according to Rivals.com.
Matta, who has often used a short bench, will need to decide how he wants to use the remaining talented players.
Freshman guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. received playing time in blowout victories, and freshman forward J.D. Weatherspoon did the same before being ruled academically ineligible for winter quarter.
Four recruits, including No. 17-ranked point guard and No. 62 overall recruit Shannon Scott, will join Williams in vying for playing time as freshmen.
Regardless of how Matta pieces together the puzzle that is next year’s season, the established pieces and young talent are there. Whichever grouping of players the coach relies on will strive to accomplish the goal that the 2010–11 team could not: a national championship.