This article originally posted on Inside The Shoe
It's finally here! Ohio State basketball tips off tonight at 7:00 against the Aggies.....of North Carolina A&T. Not exactly a marquee match up, but at least the team will actually be on the floor for a game that counts. With the season only hours away from officially beginning, now is a better time than ever to give our faithful (handful of) readers an idea of what to expect this year. If you are new to the site, or for some reason just missed them here are the four profiles I have done on the new freshman to the team: Jared Sullinger, Deshaun Thomas, Aaron Craft, and Lenzelle Smith, Jr. I promise, I will get profiles up on Jordan Sibert and J.D. Witherspoon soon. For now, I want to focus on what lineups will likely be on the floor this year and how I think the team will finish in the Big Ten.
Last year, lack of depth was a major problem for the basketball Buckeyes. This year, depth presents a different problem: Too much of it. Of course, I don't actually think that having an excess of talent is ever an actual "problem" (unless you are Mike Brown, and simply REFUSE to put good players on the floor...or call timeouts, or coach offense, or stand up to your players, etc.). Ohio State will be two-deep at every position, with several players (both starters and backups) having the ability to play multiple positions. There are five positions, so let's begin.
If the exhibition game against Walsh was any indication, the point guard will be run by committee for a while, at least. William Buford can run the point similar to how Evan Turner did last year, but isn't a true point guard. Buford will likely be in contention for Big Ten Player of the Year this season, and will play multiple positions for the Buckeyes. Aaron Craft play a marvelous game off the bench, and my personal hope is that Craft adjusts to the college game quickly and takes control of the starting point guard job by the end of this calendar year. Injuries have slowed Lenzelle Smith so far, but look for him to get minutes off the bench at the end of the season when he is fully healthy.
Your starting shooting guard will be resident gunner Jon Diebler. Diebler improved in nearly every statistical category last season, shooting 42% from beyond the arc and 87% from the charity stripe. If he can continue to improve like he does every off season, Diebler will be one of the best shooters in the country. He will be especially dangerous this year because of the inside presence provided by Messrs. Sullinger and Lauderdale (See: Centers). Basically, now that we have centers that can possibly command a double team, that leaves more open looks for Diebler (and Buford, and Lighty, and Craft, and Smith. You get the picture).
Team leader and 5th year man David Lighty mans the small forward position. It is hard to believe that David Lighty was part of the same recruiting class as Greg Oden and Mike Conley, Jr. Another player that has steadily improved every (healthy) season, Lighty averaged 12.6, 4 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game. He also became a legitimate three point threat last season, shooting 38% from deep. Lighty is also the best on the ball defender on the team, although Craft could challenge him for that title. Deshaun Thomas will likely be the first small forward off the bench.
The starters here are Dallas Lauderdale and Jared Sullinger. They are interchangeable at the power forward and center positions, so I don't really feel it is necessary to distinguish between the two. Sullinger is one inch taller and has about 25 pounds on Lauderdale, but the reach advantage definitely belongs to Lauderdale. If you have listened to basically any broadcast of an Ohio Stat basketball game recently, you have probably heard to announcers mention Lauderdale's wingspan. Their praise is warranted, as Lauderdale averaged just over 2 blocks a game last year. Lauderdale also proved that he was a competent offensive player shooting 77% from the field last season. Many of his points came on dunks and put backs, but the point is that he converts at a high rate, and is a threat to score. Lauderdale went 5-5 in the exhibition game against Walsh, so all signs point to Ohio State having one of the better front courts in all of college basketball.
So the lineup basically looks like Buford, Diebler, Lighty, Sullinger, and Lauderdale. What happens if Buford struggles a little bit running the point, and Craft has continued to look good? If you insert Craft as the starter, who do you take out? Well, this is where the fun starts, because Matta doesn't really have to "bench" anyone. If the Buckeyes are playing a small team, he can sit either Sullinger or Lauderdale to match up with them, or keep those two in and sit Diebler/Buford/Lighty (doubt it will be Buford) to stay with a big lineup and assert themselves, making the opponent adjust to them. He can do the opposite with teams that have bigger starting lineups. Isn't this fun? Here is my version of Ohio State's depth chart, at least to start off:
Point Guard: William Buford
Shooting Guard: Jon Diebler Primary Backups: Aaron Craft, Deshaun Thomas, Jordan Sibert
Small Forward: David Lighty
Power Forward: Jared Sullinger
Center: Dallas Lauderdale
Notice how Lenzelle Smith, Jr. isn't even in the (potential) top 8, and that I didn't even mention junior big man Nikola Kecman (I would be ecstatic if Kecman could turn into Kyle Madsen this season). Remember last year when Evan Turner broke his back (thankfully he was ok. That injury easily could have been very serious) and everyone feared the season was over? The Buckeyes won't rely as heavily on any one player this year, and can withstand the injury bug if it strikes.
Ohio State enters this season ranked #4 in the country. I feel that is about right. The Buckeyes lost the National Player of the Year, but reloaded with a great class and brought back all major contributors from last years team. However, one of the three teams ranked ahead of them is Big Ten rival Michigan State, who also bring back some big names, including Kalin Lucas, Delvon Roe, and Korie Lucious. Purdue suffered a tremendous loss in Robbie Hummel, but they bring back E'Twaun Moore, JuJuan Johnson, and a healthy Lewis Jackson.
The Big Ten may be the best conference in the country this year, and it will be a dogfight for the championship. With Hummel, I really feel like the Big Ten could send three teams to the Final Four. Now, Purdue will be good, but I just don't think they are in the same class as Ohio State and Michigan State. But anything can happen, if they just protect their home court against those teams (or even one of them) and let the Buckeyes and Boilermakers beat up on each other, who is to say they can't be in competition for the Big Ten?
The out of conference doesn't look too intimidating, as Ohio State once again draws Florida State in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, but the Buckeyes do have a match up with the Florida Gators in Gainesville on Tuesday. Hopefully Matta gets the guys ready for North Carolina A&T, because we saw earlier this week what happens when you take a cupcake game too lightly when Tennessee lost to Div. II Indianapolis. I really don't like Tennessee and Bruce Pearl, if you couldn't tell.
Call me a coward, but I predict that Ohio State and Michigan State tie for the Big Ten regular season title at 16-2. I say that each team will lose on the road to each other, and then each team will lose one game to the combination of Purdue, Wisconsin, and Illinois (all in the top 25, by the way). I will go out on a limb (sarcasm) and say the Buckeyes prevail in the Big Ten Tournament, but that both Ohio State and Michigan State are one-seeds come March. I have seen talented freshman lead Ohio State to the Championship game before, and this year they won't have to lead, just contribute.
The combination of veteran leadership and young talent gets the Buckeyes to the Final Four this season. I don't want to go any farther than that, because that far into the tourny it really does matter who you play. But I do believe that this team is one of the four best in the country, and that they are capable of bringing home a title.