When the Ohio State men’s basketball team (18-0, 5-0) was named the No. 1 team in the nation in both The Associated Press and ESPN/USA Today coaches’ polls Monday, it became the first OSU men’s team to accomplish such an honor since the 2006-07 squad, which finished its season as the runner-up to national champion Florida.
As this year’s group continues to replicate the 2006-07 Buckeyes’ success in the polls, grabbing a hold of the No. 1 ranking isn’t the only similarity between the two teams, as both squads have found their ways to the top of the polls through the play of blue-chip freshmen and the leadership of veteran role players.
The star freshman: 2010-11 Jared Sullinger and 2006-07 Greg Oden
Both the 2006-07 and 2010-11 Buckeye teams received boosts in preseason hype and attention because of the additions of heralded freshmen post players in Greg Oden and Jared Sullinger.
Despite missing the first seven games of his only season at OSU because of a wrist injury, Oden averaged 15.7 points per game for the Buckeyes, including a 25-point, 12-rebound performance in the National Championship Game against Florida. A selection to The Associated Press‘ 2007 All-American team, Oden left OSU after his freshman season where he was selected first overall by the Portland Trailblazers in the NBA draft.
Sullinger has provided similar support for this year’s Buckeye team and is one of 30 players selected to the midseason watch list for the John R. Wooden Award, given annually to the nation’s best player. In ten weeks, he has been named the Big Ten Freshman of the Week eight times and the conference’s Player of the Week three times.
A Columbus native, Sullinger said the excitement around this year’s team reminds him of what his hometown was like when Oden was a Buckeye.
“The fans is coming out and supporting us. The student life is back at it again,” Sullinger said. “It’s great, but at the same time we can’t let the hype get to our head, and we got to stay grounded and keep playing Ohio State basketball.”
The freshman point guard: 2010-11 Aaron Craft and 2006-07 Mike Conley
In the 2006-07 season, Oden’s high school teammate, Mike Conley Jr., took command of the Buckeyes’ point guard position and averaged 11.3 points and a Big Ten-leading 6.1 assists per game. Conley, the No. 4 pick in the 2007 NBA draft by the Memphis Grizzlies, hit a game-winning shot against then No. 1-ranked Wisconsin on Feb. 25, 2007, that helped the No. 2-ranked Buckeyes clinch the Big Ten regular season title.
Unlike Conley, freshman Aaron Craft doesn’t start for the Buckeyes but has still managed to make his mark on the point guard position early in his OSU career, averaging a team-leading 4.9 assists. A former AAU teammate of Sullinger’s, Craft was named the Big Ten’s Freshman on the Week on Jan. 17, following a career-high 19-point performance in OSU’s 69-66 win against Penn State.
OSU coach Thad Matta said Conley walked away impressed with OSU’s new point
guard after competing against him in scrimmages at OSU during the summer.
“Michael liked him just from the standpoint of, Aaron, you know, started guarding him when he pulled into the parking lot when he was here ’cause he wanted the challenge,” Matta said.
The senior leader: 2010-11 David Lighty and 2006-07 Ron Lewis
Despite having the talented freshmen, both OSU squads benefited from the leadership of their seniors.
As a fifth-year senior during the 2006-07 season, Ron Lewis’ veteran presence was most apparent during the 2007 NCAA Tournament, where he was the Buckeyes’ top scorer in three of their six tournament games. He also hit a game-saving 3-pointer against Xavier to send the second-round game into overtime.
In his fifth year as a Buckeye, David Lighty, a freshman on the 2006-07 team, has grown into a role similar to the one Lewis played, averaging nearly identical statistics as his former teammate. Matta said Lighty, who has more wins than any player in program history with 113, doesn’t get the recognition he deserves.
“I think David Lighty will go down as the most underrated player to ever play at Ohio State,” Matta said. “He is definitely one of my all-time favorites that I’ve coached anywhere.”
The 3-point specialist: 2010-11 Jon Diebler and 2006-07 Ivan Harris
With all the attention paid by opposing defenses to their talented post players, both OSU teams have seen an abundance of 3-point shot opportunities, and both teams had the players to knock them down.
Of the 257 field goal attempts that senior forward Ivan Harris made during the 2006-07 season, 58 percent of them were from beyond the 3-point arc. Harris connected on 39 percent of those 3-point shots and averaged 7.6 points per game.
This year, OSU has relied heavily on senior Jon Diebler. Eighty percent of Diebler’s shot attempts this season have been 3-pointers, and on Dec. 15, he tied a single-game school record when he made nine 3-pointers in OSU’s 83-55 win over Florida Gulf Coast.
“Ideally, we want to be able to score inside and outside every game,” Matta said. “We’ve shown we can do both, and that’s what I love about this team.”
The sacrifice maker: 2010-11 William Buford and 2006-07 Jamar Butler
As is the case with most great teams, egos and personal accolades have taken a backseat to the needs and goals of the past two No. 1-ranked Buckeye teams.
After establishing himself as the Buckeyes’ point guard in his first two seasons at OSU, Jamar Butler shifted over to shooting guard during his junior season to make way for Conley. With all the Buckeyes’ added star power, Butler averaged 8.5 points per game, down from the 10.1 points he averaged his sophomore season.
Junior William Buford also has changed positions this season, moving from his natural shooting guard position to the Buckeyes’ starting point guard, filling the void left by reigning National Player of the Year Evan Turner.
“Will gets stronger as the season goes on,” Matta said following Buford’s 23-point performance against Tennessee-Martin on Dec. 27. “As a coach you always like to see guys who put in that kind of work have a good outcome.”
The paint protectors: 2010-11 Dallas Lauderdale and 2006-07 Othello Hunter
Role players weren’t only making their impacts on the offensive end of the floor for the Buckeyes.
When Oden missed the first seven games with a wrist injury, Othello Hunter filled the void in the lineup and in the middle of the paint. Hunter came off the bench behind Oden and Harris for the majority of the season.
Senior Dallas Lauderdale’s presence at the starting center position has prevented the need for Sullinger to cover opponents’ top post players, keeping the Buckeyes’ top scorer from picking up early fouls.
“He’s going with fire in his eyes; he’s getting rebounds out of his area, and he’s clearing space,” Matta said of Lauderdale. “It does nothing but help our basketball team.”
The freshman X-factor: 2010-11 Deshaun Thomas and 2006-07 Daequan Cook
Indicative of the talent that each team possessed at the top of its rotations, both Buckeye teams featured highly touted recruits coming off the bench and playing limited minutes.
Entering the 2006-07 season as Rivals.com’s No. 13 recruit in the nation, McDonald’s High School All-American selection Daequan Cook made an immediate impact at OSU, leading the Buckeyes in scoring in three of their first five games. As the season wore on, the Buckeyes became less reliant on Cook, as he played double-digit minutes in only half of OSU’s NCAA Tournament games before leaving school after his freshman season to become a first-round selection in the 2007 NBA draft.
Another McDonald’s High School All-American has made a similar immediate impact on this year’s squad. Freshman Deshaun Thomas, Rivals.com’s No. 22-ranked recruit in the 2010 class, scored in double-digits in four of OSU’s first five games. Lately, Thomas has seen his playing time reduced, having not played more than 13 minutes in a game since the Big Ten season started Dec. 31.
“With Deshaun, we need him to be ready to go,” Matta said. “Deshaun can score, and I think his defense has really, really grown.”
The future: 2010-11 Jordan Sibert and 2006-07 David Lighty
Although both teams had their focuses set on the present, they also offered glimpses of what the future could hold for Buckeye basketball.
Picking up 35 of his first 113 career wins as a freshman, Lighty served as a defensive specialist off the bench for OSU. Lighty saw his role increase as the season wore on, as he played 25 minutes of the Buckeyes’ 67-60 win over Georgetown in the Final Four.
This season, Matta has been reluctant to extend his rotation past seven players, but when he has, he’s relied on freshman guard Jordan Sibert. Playing in 14 of the Buckeyes’ 18 games this season, Sibert has shown flashes of being a defensive presence similar to the one Lighty provided off the bench for the 2006-07 Buckeyes.
“My coaches always tell me, you know, ‘You’re going to get your time, and when you get it, just take advantage of it,'” Sibert said. “This whole thing is a learning experience, you know. We’re still young; we still have a lot of time to grow.”