Cody Cousino / Photo editor
At times, it looked like the only thing missing from the 2010-11 Ohio State men’s basketball team’s season was a little competition. The Buckeyes jumped out to a 24-game winning streak, only lost twice during their regular season and cruised to both Big Ten regular season and tournament titles.
The 2011 NCAA tournament, however, told a different story.
OSU’s national championship hopes came to what some thought was a premature end thanks to a last-minute shot by Kentucky’s then-freshman guard Brandon Knight, ending the Buckeyes’ season in the Sweet 16 round.
Senior guard William Buford, who shot just 2-of-16 and missed a potential game-winning shot in the Buckeyes’ NCAA Tournament loss has cited his performance against Kentucky as one of the factors that contributed to returning OSU for his senior year.
“I had the shot to win the game. It was just crazy. Like, I just stayed in the gym because I never want that to happen again,” Buford said at OSU’s media day on Oct. 13. “It’s still in my head, but I don’t sweat about it too much anymore.”
Buford, OSU’s second-leading scorer a season ago, has been named to the preseason watch lists for both the Naismith and Wooden awards, which are given at the end of each season to college basketball’s top player. Joining Buford on both 50-player lists are OSU sophomore teammates Jared Sullinger and Aaron Craft.
Sullinger, an All-American last season who was named a preseason All-American this season, also passed on the opportunity to be a first round pick in the 2011 NBA draft, a decision that he claims to have made more than a year ago.
“When I first stepped foot on campus, I knew I was coming back,” Sullinger said. “This campus is something special.”
OSU’s leading scorer and rebounder last season, Sullinger has since slimmed down, dropping from a playing weight of 290 pounds to a noticeably more sculpted 265 pounds. Despite the loss in mass, Sullinger said not to expect any less power than he displayed a season ago.
“I’ll always have a butt,” Sullinger said. “With all the weight I lost, no matter what, but the butt’s still there.”
Unlike Buford and Sullinger who will be depended upon to play roles similar to the ones that they played a season ago, Craft will be adjusting to his first season as a starter in college basketball, after spending his freshman year as OSU’s first man off the bench.
Craft, last season’s team leader in assists and steals, said he spent the offseason working on his jump shot in hopes of improving a 46.1 shooting percentage — the lowest of any Buckeye who averaged more than 15 minutes per game last season.
“Making myself a threat and being able to knock down open shots is going to help us be a better basketball team,” Craft said. “That’s going to spread the floor out more, it’s going to open things offensively.”
The Buckeyes return a sizable amount of star power in Buford, Sullinger and Craft, but there are still holes on the OSU roster. Coach Thad Matta will need to replace a trio of three-year starters in David Lighty, Jon Diebler, and Dallas Lauderdale. Matta said that he noticed the effects of Lighty’s departure in a preseason exhibition against Walsh last Sunday.
“If you look closely I had tears in my eyes where there’s a couple plays where I was like, ‘Dave would have got that,'” he said with a laugh.
In an attempt to replace the defensive presence lost by Lighty’s graduation, Matta started sophomore guard Lenzelle Smith, Jr. on Sunday.
“Lenzelle’s had a great camp to this point in terms of just his energy, his defensive prowess,” Matta said. “I thought he was very, very effective today.”
The loss of Diebler, the Big Ten’s all-time leading 3-point shooter, also leaves some questions in the OSU lineup, but sophomore forward Deshaun Thomas may be the answer.
Since last season, Thomas has lost 15 pounds in hopes of improving his conditioning, and has focused more on his all-around game, including on the defensive side of the floor.
Another difference between this season and last could be Matta’s use of his bench. As opposed to a year ago, when Matta would often play seven players each game — with the same five players often playing the entire second half — Matta has stated a desire to go deeper into his bench this season in hopes of pressuring teams continuously with fresh legs.
Freshman Shannon Scott, the son of former NBA player Charles Scott, is among those that could contribute off the bench and share time at point guard with Craft.
“I think it’d be a really good fit for us,” Scott said. “The way (Craft) pushes me in practice, I’m like playing against one of the best point guards in the league.”
OSU is ranked No. 3 in the country in the preseason Associated Press poll. But after having come up short in March the past two seasons, Craft said this year’s team knows it will be evaluated by where it stands after the season, though.
“Any time you lose before you want to, it’s inspiration,” Craft said. “It’s definitely motivation through the summer and this preseason.”