Urban Meyer will take the podium at Big Ten Media Day as the biggest celebrity currently at Ohio State. He will have yet to win a game, but Meyer’s decorated resume of coaching awards and bowl victories will have the Buckeye faithful thinking championships. However, working in the corridors of Value City Arena is a man who, in seven seasons, has led Ohio State to five Big Ten regular season championships, six NCAA Tournament berths, two Final Fours and produced seven first-round draft picks. Even though the pigskin will always be king in Columbus, Thad Matta has built a program that reloads every season, something that will not change this year, even without Jared Sullinger.
So Long, Sully
When Matta did have Sullinger and senior William Buford though, the Buckeyes took advantage, posting a 31-8 (13-5) record and Final Four appearance. A one-loss nonconference slate with quality home wins against Florida and Duke set the tone for a year in which Ohio State took care of business and beat the teams it was supposed to beat. With the exception of a five-point loss at Illinois (courtesy of Brandon Paul), the rest of Ohio State’s four conference losses came against top Big Ten competition (Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan and Michigan State). And in the Big Dance, then-sophomore Deshaun Thomas hit his stride, averaging 19.2 points in the Buckeye’s five NCAA Tournament contests. But against Kansas in the Final Four, the Buckeyes could not compensate for Thomas’ 1-of-7 shooting performance, as Ohio State came up three points short of advancing to the championship game.
Sullinger’s arrival in Boston to play for the Celtics signified the departure of Ohio State’s leading scorer and rebounder (17.5 ppg, 9.2 rpg). Couple that with Buford’s (14.5 ppg) graduation and it’s easy to see the loss incurred from a pair of impact players. Sophomores Jordan Sibert and forward J.D. Weatherspoon are also leaving, choosing to transfer to Dayton and Toledo, respectively. However, a crop of talented sophomores is coming back for a third season and have the opportunity to take the reigns of this team. The combination of assist artist Aaron Craft, Thomas and guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. will lead a team ripe with unproven freshmen from last year, none of whom played more than an average of 10.6 minutes per game. Craft at the point, fused with Thomas’ scoring ability (his 57.4eFG% was the highest of any starter), has the potential to be a lethal duo this season. Smith showed promise, as the native Hoosier posted big performances in big games, scoring a game-high 28 at Indiana, 17 against Michigan and 18 in Ohio State’s win against Syracuse in the Elite Eight.
A Little Help Here?
The Buckeyes’ biggest enemy this season may be a lack of depth. They lose four players and gain one freshman in guard Amedeo Della Valle (a Rivals three-star Italian recruit out of Findlay Prep) and walk-on transfer Alex Rogers, a junior guard from Christian Brothers University in Memphis. Rogers is a Cincinnati native who went to Oak Hills High School. Much like last season, when Sullinger, Thomas, Buford and Craft accounted for 61.8 percent of the team’s total minutes, Matta is going to need to find quality minutes on a thin bench.
Ohio State will try to avoid missing the NCAA Tournament for only the second time in the Matta era. The Buckeyes will rely on their proven playmakers, but the key to their success may lie in the quality of the help around them. While Indiana and Michigan will likely sit atop the conference, the Buckeyes have the opportunity to finish in the Big Ten’s upper-half, somewhere in the fourth to sixth range. On paper, they seem too top-heavy to make significant noise this year, but as Matta has shown in the past, his team will not settle for mediocrity.