Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Don't understate what Ohio State lost in Jon Diebler and David Lighty

Its amazing when you think about it.

Ohio State, the team that many believed to be the best in the country for much of last season, returns their slimmed-down all-american center in Jared Sullinger, an underrated sophomore point guard poised for a big season in Aaron Craft, and a senior in William Buford that is an 18 ppg season away from becoming the program's all-time leading scorer. Throw in productive sophomore DeShaun Thomas and a loaded recruiting class, and you would think this team had national title favorite written all over it.

But they don't.

In fact, they barely have hype heading into the season, but that's what will happen North Carolina returns their entire team, Kentucky once again reloads on the recruiting trail, and UConn restocks their shelves in late August with the best high school big man in the country.

Its astonishing, really. Ohio State lost three games last season. One was on the road at Wisconsin, where no one wins. Another was on the road at Purdue, where, well, ditto. The third was in the Sweet 16, where Kentucky needed a horrific night from Buford and a last-second shot from Brandon Knight to advance. And no one is talking about them.

"We won 34 games, were the No. 1 overall seed, and we had the No. 51 player drafted in the NBA, and that was it," Ohio State coach Thad Matta told ESPN's Andy Katz in a column Katz posted on this subject yesterday.

Quantitatively, Matta is right. They bring back sophomores -- and rising stars, arguably two of the best at their position in the country -- at the two most important positions on the floor, point guard and center. They have a potent scorer on the wing and they have plenty of young talent to fill in the gaps and the minutes that are left over.

But by referring to the graduation of David Lighty and Jon Diebler as losing nothing more than "the No. 51 player drafted", Matta is doing an incredible disservice to what those two seniors provided the Buckeyes. Their value to that team goes well beyond the numbers that showed up next to their names in the box score. (Those numbers weren't insignificant, either -- 24.7 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 5.7 apg and 165 threes on 47.7% shooting from deep.)

"The intangibles will be missed, and those two were phenomenal practice players," Matta told Katz. "They brought energy every single day. They were upbeat and always smiling and always wanting to give more."

Leadership is immeasurable, and there's no doubt that the leadership those two provided the Buckeyes last season made a difference on their record. But both Diebler's and Lighty's contributions go beyond the intangibles.

Its hard to put into words just how good of a shooting performance Diebler had as a senior. He was the most efficient player in the country last season by a wide margin, which is a large reason he was tops amongst wing players in terms of value added despite using less than 1/7th of his team's possessions. He shot 50.2% from beyond the arc while taking more than six attempts per game. That's an unreal number.

What Thad Matta would do is use Diebler as Sullinger's primary post-feeder. This put defenses in the unenviable position of having to double off of Diebler on the wing, sending a double team from Craft/Buford/Lighty (37.7%/44.2%/42.9% from three, respectively) at the top of the key, or try to double team with the other big man, which leaves a wide open post player on the opposite block. Diebler's ability to feed the post and bury open threes made him the definition of a floor-spreader. He was a huge reason that Sullinger was able to get opportunities to operate one-on-one in the post. (See the image below, where Luke Winn broke down Ohio State's standard offensive set last season.)

Lighty's value was in his versatility. There wasn't anything on a basketball court that he couldn't do. For starters, he was a terrific defender, capable of guarding any position one through four, and a good enough rebounder that Ohio State could afford to play with four guards around Sullinger. Offensively, he was a good enough shooter that you couldn't leave him open, an explosive enough penetrator that you couldn't play up on him, and unselfish and skilled enough to make the right pass when he drew an extra defender.

You will find little argument that Lighty and Diebler were role players throughout their careers. But as seniors, both players were the best in the country at playing their role; Diebler the best spot-up shooter and Lighty the best glue-guy. Throw in the fact that both were perfectly happy to play within their role on the team, and Matta had the best of both worlds -- seniors that were talented enough to be stars at many other schools across the country, but that wanted to win badly enough that they would play a complimentary role to a freshman.

That is what made Ohio State such a good team in 2010-2011. Talented and experienced role plays that understood and perfected their role in maximizing the talents of an all-american center.

So while Diebler and Lighty will leave Ohio State as nothing more than "the No. 51 player drafted", the void they leave in the Ohio State lineup will be very, very difficult to fill.

I'm not saying the Buckeyes won't be the favorite in the Big Ten or a national title contender.

I'm just saying there is a valid reason why they aren't being talked about in the same sentence as Kentucky, North Carolina, and now UConn.

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