At any college basketball media day, higher expectations, each player putting on 15 pounds of muscle, and improved shooting mechanics are consistent talking points.
During today's Buckeye basketball media day, head coach Thad Matta and his players added tempo to the list.
Matta's teams are consistently strong on defense, but they want to use that to force more turnovers and play at a faster pace. It has been the focus of the team's early practices, forcing their big men to fit the up-tempo strategy.
With the talent and athletes they have on offense, Ohio State hopes to have a more balanced scoring attack.
In addition to media day, Eleven Warriors updates you on the latest basketball recruiting news.
Forcing a Quick pace
The major turning point for last year's Ohio State squad began with Matta giving more minutes to LaQuinton Ross and playing a smaller, quicker lineup. This year's team wants to play at a pace similar to the way they ended the previous season.
"When we play good defense, this is what happens for us, in terms of what an effective basketball team we are," Matta said. "We're fast, we can handle the ball. We have to turn easy buckets into points for us, and that has to be something that is, kind of, a calling card for this team."
With new NCAA rules allowing for coaches to begin practice two weeks earlier, the Buckeyes have been able to install more intricate defensive sets. Senior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. emphasized how the team is working on pressuring the basketball.
"For coach Matta to already start putting presses in is exciting for us, because that means we're already starting to 'click' on defense," Smith said. "We've got some speed demons here, guys who are long, athletic and can get steals. That's going to be a big part of our game this year."
While the ideal plan is for the Buckeyes to play at a fast pace all season, certain Big Ten teams tend to slow games down, limit turnovers and derail any chance at getting fast break points.
"We tend to clash with a team like Wisconsin, with their playing style," Smith said. "But, if we play the type of defense we're capable of, we can put that pressure on them and make them play faster. If we can do that to teams, we can be pretty solid."
Leading the higher-octane Buckeyes, both on offense and defense, is senior point guard Aaron Craft. No stranger to forcing turnovers and using those to generate easy offense, Craft hopes that will be more common this season. It all begins with solid defensive play.
"Last year, you'll find if we get stops and we can run, that's when we're at our best," Craft said. "If teams try to slow it down, we'll have to figure a way to amp it back up."
Onus on frontcourt
Ohio State's late, second half lineup in the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments were led by a lineup whose biggest player did not exceed 6-feet, 8-inches tall and 200 pounds. While they didn't face a dominant force in the post, the Wichita State game exposed a weakness in that smaller lineup.
When the Buckeyes failed to keep the Shockers' penetrating guards confined to the perimeter, there was no low-post threat to keep them away from the basket. Junior center Amir Williams and his 6-foot-11-inch frame are vital to an all-around, strong defensive performance.
While the rest of the team looks to push the pace again, Williams is not planning on being left in their dust.
"I've got a little bag of tricks I've been working on in the off-season," Williams said. "Specifically, being more aggressive in the post, but I'm also working on getting in better shape than last season."
His teammates are already seeing improvement in Williams' conditioning.
"I think our bigs are in the best shape they've been in since they've been here," Craft said. "Amir ran a 6:00 mile, this summer. His best before that was a 6:15."
With Evan Ravenel graduating, Matta's options behind Williams are thin. The only other center on the roster is junior Trey McDonald, who only averaged 7.6 minutes a game last year.
He played against Indiana, Minnesota and Wisconsin – a season-high 17 minutes against the Badgers – but McDonald feels he's ready for heavier minutes, particularly in conference play.
"I know those games are physical, but I've been in the weight room all summer to prepare for this," he said. "As a team, we're ready to give out some of that abuse and not just take it."
With limited minutes, Buckeye fans might not know what McDonald can provide to this team. He wants to take on the role of clogging the paint for opposing teams.
"Guys that get beat off the dribble, I want them to know that they have help behind them," McDonald said. "I just want to protect the rim, rebound and get the ball out so we can get easy buckets in transition."
With teams like Ohio State playing a smaller lineup, there's more stress on a defense in this era of college basketball than, possibly, ever before. Even though rules allow for it, McDonald can't just sit within five feet of the basket and dare teams to attack the riim.
With opponents featuring "stretch fours," such as Michigan State's Adreian Payne, Williams is confident in his abilities to guard those types of players.
"I've guarded athletic guys like LaQuinton Ross and Deshaun, last year, in practice," Williams said. "I have the length and athleticism to stick with those guys, so it won't be a problem for me to defend those 'stretch fours and fives.'"
Ohio State’s quest to add another big man in 2014 continues after striking out with Goodluck Okonoboh (whose tweet referenced one of the three listenable tracks on Drake’s new album) and Elbert Robinson.
That leaves Myles Turner and Payton Dastrup as the only apparent Buckeye big man targets left for the 2014 class.
Dastrup will visit the weekend of the Iowa game, but still plans on taking a two-year mormon mission. Since his freshman year will be in 2016, that leaves Turner as the only viable target left.
At one point, Turner tentatively scheduled a visit to Columbus for the Iowa game, as well. Sunday, he told SNY.tv he’s planning on traveling to Kentucky, Duke or Oklahoma State that weekend, instead. He also canceled a visit to Kansas earlier this month.
Turner doesn’t currently have any official visits scheduled. He plans on signing in the spring, so Ohio State still has time to get him on campus.