Tuesday, November 1, 2011

2011-2012 Top 50 Countdown: No. 4 Ohio State Buckeyes

Over the coming weeks, we will be counting down our Top 50 teams in the country. Teams 26-50 will be posted in groups of five, while we will count backwards from No. 25 to the No. 1 team in the country. You can find a complete schedule of our 2011-2012 Season Preview coverage here. To browse through the rest of the Top 50, click here.

Last Season: 34-3, 16-2 (1st Big Ten), lost in the Sweet 16 to Kentucky

Head Coach: Thad Matta

Key Losses: David Lighty, Jon Diebler, Dallas Lauderdale

Newcomers: Shannon Scott, Amir Williams, Sam Thompson, Trey McDonald

Projected Lineup:

- G: Aaron Craft, So.
- G: William Buford, Sr.
- F: DeShaun Thomas, So.
- F: Jared Sullinger, So.
- F: Amir Williams, Fr.
- Bench: Jordan Sibery, So.; Lenzelle Smith, So.; JD Weatherspoon, So.; Shannon Scott, Fr.; Sam Thompson, Fr.; Trey McDonald, Fr.

Outlook: Last season didn't end the way that Buckeye fans had hoped. It was almost a consensus that, heading into the NCAA Tournament, the Buckeyes were the best team in the country. They had just two losses on the season, and those came at Wisconsin and at Purdue. Losing on the home court of a talented conference rival is nothing to be ashamed of. After rolling through the Big Ten Tournament and the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, the Buckeyes were shocked by Kentucky. William Buford couldn't hit a shot to save his life, Jared Sullinger was outplayed by Josh Harrellson and the Buckeyes were sent home early.

The good news heading into this season is that Ohio State not only gets Sullinger back for his sophomore season, they are likely getting an even more dominant version of the all-american. Sully has dropped a good 15-20 pounds heading into the year, streamlining his body and giving himself more endurance and explosiveness while maintaining the strength and the girth that allowed him to average 17.2 ppg and 10.2 rpg in his first year out of high school. Sullinger is the most dominating physical presence in the country. He's impossible to keep from gaining position on the block, he's an immovable object when he boxes out on a shot attempt and he's got a soft-touch and a solid array of post moves, which is why he shoots 55.0% from two-point range. Barring injury, Sullinger is going to be a monster.

How Thad Matta fills out his front court rotation will be an interesting saga to follow. Last year, he liked starting shot blocker and rebounder Dallas Lauderdale, bringing point guard Aaron Craft off the bench and playing the majority of the game with four perimeter players on the floor. It will be a bit different this year, as Lauderdale graduated along with David Lighty, who allowed Matta to play that style (more on that in a bit). The one certainty we have is that DeShaun Thomas is going to get a lot of minutes. Thomas is a 6'7", lefty combo-forward that can flat-out score. He played limited minutes as a freshman, but was able to post some impressive numbers. Amir Williams might end up being the guy that plays the Lauderdale role. He's not going to be as physical as Lauderdale, but he's got the length and the athleticism to be a shot-blocker. BC transfer Evan Ravenel should also see some minutes in the front court.

The perimeter attack for Ohio State is going to have some question marks, but it also has quite a few answers as Aaron Craft and William Buford are both back for another season. Buford really turned a corner as a junior. After thriving as a mid-range shooter that comes off of screens in his first two seasons in Columbus, Buford's all-around game really started to show last season. He knocked down 44.2% of his threes and he proved to be a capable creator off the bounce. Craft had a sensational freshman year. It was enough that putting listing Craft as the best point guard in the Big Ten, while incorrect, wouldn't be complete insanity. The beauty in his game is the simplicity -- he's a tenacious on-ball defender, he's a capable shooter when he's left open and he's a terrific creator off the dribble. He plays within himself and understands his role on this team is not to be a big-time scorer, but to be a facilitator offensively and a leader in the locker room. He plays that role to absolute perfection.

The rest of the OSU perimeter attack will take time to determine. A trio of sophomores -- Jordan Sibert, J.D. Weatherspoon and Lenzelle Smith Jr. -- and freshman Sam Thompson will be battling for minutes at the small forward spot.

The key to this season for Ohio State -- and something that is not nearly being discussed enough -- will be replacing Diebler and Lighty. Losing those two will hurt more than any Buckeye fan will care to admit. Those two were role players, but they were the absolute best in the country at playing their specific role. Diebler was one of the best shooters I've ever seen at the college level, so lethal that you couldn't leave him open. Ever. He also was a terrific passer into the post, which made it extremely difficult for opposing defenses to double Sullinger on the block. Lighty could do everything. He was a leader, he defended every position 1-5, he could shoot from three, he could rebound the ball in the paint, he could play the point and create off the dribble. That versatility, on both ends of the floor, was what allowed the Buckeyes to play the way they did. Lighty could defend power forwards on the block. They couldn't defend him on the perimeter.

Ohio State is going to be a very good team this year. When you have a player as good as Jared Sullinger, its difficult not to be very good. They will win the Big Ten and will have a real shot at making the Final Four. But until someone proves they can fill the void left by Diebler and Lighty, the Buckeyes are going to sit just below the elite teams this season.

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