Part Four of our weeklong college basketball preview.
I can't believe I agreed to do this. As a lifelong fan of two of the most tortured franchises in all of sports (Cubs and Vikings), I should know better than to jinx my team by publicly declaring that it is the favorite to win the title before the season even starts. It goes against everything I believe in, and all but guarantees that this season will end with nothing but colossal disappointment. Yet here I am, inexcusably about to explain why Ohio State is the team to beat in college basketball this year.
And so, I'd like to issue a public apology to all the Buckeyes fans. If this upcoming season ends with anything less than a national title, I take full responsibility. I once made "I Love You Always Forever" the first song on a CD I burned and gave to a girl I had the hots for when I was in junior high, and even that wasn't as ill-advised as writing this article is. I'm fully aware that I'm about to make my own bed, and because of that I deserve to be your scapegoat when the inevitable happens. Just know that I truly am sorry.
Having said all of that, it's hard to ignore the fact that Ohio State really is the best team in college basketball for one very simple reason: It was the best team last season, and it is going to be even better this season.
Last year, some college basketball analyst (most likely Jay Bilas — it's always Jay Bilas) made a comment early on about how there weren't going to be any dominant teams in college basketball, and for whatever reason all the other analysts decided to regurgitate that exact point ad nauseam for the rest of the year. Before long, it was impossible to watch a college basketball pregame or postgame show, or even just a college basketball segment on SportsCenter, without hearing somebody mention the word "parity" or talk about how there were a few really good teams but no great teams. It quickly became the point that every analyst felt the need to make, despite the fact that it was patently untrue. That's because the truth was that there was a dominant team in college basketball last season, and that team was Ohio State.
Here are the facts: OSU started the season 24-0, played against NCAA tournament teams 15 times in the regular season, and went 13-2 in those 15 games (including four road wins — two of which came against an Elite Eight Florida team and a Sweet 16 Florida State team) with an average margin of victory of 14.3 points. The only two regular-season losses for the Buckeyes came on the road against two highly ranked teams that rarely lose at home (Purdue and Wisconsin), and both of those teams lost by a combined 51 points when they played Ohio State in Columbus. Even though OSU was the no. 1-ranked team in the country for most of the year and got every team's best shot night in and night out, it never slipped up and lost to a mediocre team like no. 1-ranked teams oftentimes do.
The Buckeyes were so dominant throughout the year, in fact, that it became glaringly obvious to me that the only way they could possibly lose in the NCAA tournament is if they played poorly and their opponent played well. This might seem like a no-brainer, but there's actually more to it than you might think, so allow me to elaborate. The Buckeyes had no weaknesses last year. They had great perimeter players to complement the best interior player in America (Jared Sullinger). They played hard-nosed defense, and had two of the best on-ball defenders in college basketball with David Lighty and Aaron Craft. They had ball handlers, shooters, slashers, and bangers, and could adapt to any defense by running-and-gunning or being methodical with set plays on offense (I can't decide if Ball Handlers, Shooters, Slashers, and Bangers sounds more like the name of a gross, run-down strip club or the top four candidates for names of MLS expansion teams). They had that perfect mix of veteran leaders and superstar freshmen that all teams want to have in this era of college basketball, but they didn't have the chemistry issues that sometimes come with that mix. And they had a hands-off coach who trusted and believed in his players and was just as hungry for a national title as they were. So long as they brought their A-game, nobody in America was going to touch them.
But that's the thing about sports, and college basketball in particular — it's impossible for teams to bring their A-game every night. If it wasn't, it wouldn't be 35 years and counting since we last saw a team run the table (and by "we," I mean everyone who was alive to see Indiana go undefeated in 1976 which I wasn't). At some point even the best teams are going to have off nights and be susceptible to upsets. When this happens, it's on the underdogs to take advantage of the opportunity and rise to the occasion.
In Ohio State's Sweet 16 game last year against Kentucky, the Wildcats were able to do just that. Ohio State could've afforded to play poorly, as long as Kentucky did, too (like how OSU won at Florida State despite shooting 32 percent from the field). And Ohio State still would've been OK if Kentucky played well, provided the Buckeyes played well, too (like how OSU won at Michigan despite Michigan's shooting 52 percent from the field). The one thing Ohio State couldn't afford to do, though, was play poorly (33 percent from the floor, including a 2-16 game from Will Buford) on the same night that Kentucky played well (46 percent from the floor, 11 blocked shots on defense). The Buckeyes had a huge margin of error last season and were good enough to have still beaten Kentucky without playing their best, but their margin of error certainly did have boundaries, and unfortunately for Ohio State fans, we found out what those boundaries were.
The bottom line is that the Ohio State team that game wasn't the same team I watched in their previous 36 games. How much Kentucky had to do with this is debatable. But seeing as how the Buckeyes were massively outplayed yet still had a good look at the final buzzer to win the game, what's not debatable, as far as I'm concerned, is that Ohio State was a much better team than Kentucky last season and would've surely beat the Wildcats in a seven-game series (hell, OSU would've cruised to the title last year if every round were a seven-game series). Unfortunately, though, the NCAA tournament is an unforgiving beast, and one off night is enough to end a season. The Buckeyes had such a night against Kentucky and still had a chance to win at the end, but they ultimately came up short. Because of this early exit, everyone seems to have forgotten that they were the best team in college basketball last year.
And make no mistake about it — they were far and away the best team in college basketball last year.
The scary thing for every other team in the country is that the best team from last year is going to be even better this year. Ohio State really only lost three guys from last season, and while they were all seniors who took veteran leadership and a ton of talent with them, the Buckeyes shouldn't have too much trouble filling the void those guys left. Dallas Lauderdale's main function on last year's team was to block shots, rebound, and guard the opponent's best big guy so Jared Sullinger could conserve energy on defense, which is a role that McDonald's All-American recruit Amir Williams should be able to step in and take care of right away. Williams won't be the defensive force that Lauderdale was, but he'll make up for it by being much more refined offensively than Lauderdale, and with Sullinger he promises to give Ohio State multiple low-post threats for the first time since Greg Oden and his penis were an unstoppable 1-2 punch in 2007.
Offensively, the biggest hole that needs to be filled for this year's team is the one left by Jon Diebler and his record-setting 3-point shooting career. Diebler holds the Big Ten record for threes made in both a career and a single game, and was, at times, Ohio State's most dangerous weapon last season. The truth is that there's no way any one player can replicate what the best shooter in Big Ten history brought to the table, but I don't think Ohio State necessarily needs a knockdown shooter like Diebler, since all of its perimeter players can shoot pretty well. William Buford, Aaron Craft, Deshaun Thomas, Jordan Sibert, Lenzelle Smith Jr., and McDonald's All-American recruit Shannon Scott figure to be the perimeter players who will get any sort of significant minutes this year, and all six of those guys have the ability to make it rain.
Sure, none of them are individually anywhere close to being as good of a shooter as Diebler, but it's not exactly unrealistic to expect them as a collective group to pick up the slack and make up for Diebler's lost production, which is all that's really asked of them.
Defensively, the one big question mark facing the Buckeyes this year is figuring out how to replace David Lighty, who had been the heart and soul of Ohio State basketball for the past three years. Lighty was the best on-ball defender in Big Ten, and one of the best in the country, so finding a guy to take over that lockdown role is going to be a must. Luckily, Craft has the ability to be that guy. The only concern is that, as a 6-foot-2 point guard, he's considerably smaller than Lighty and therefore won't be able to guard 6-9 power forwards or even 6-6 swingmen like Lighty could; someone else is going to have to step up and take on that lockdown defender role when playing teams whose best players aren't guards. But because defense is always a no. 1 priority for Thad Matta, I doubt this will be all that big of a deal. Even if the Buckeyes don't have a lockdown wing defender of Lighty's caliber, it's all but guaranteed they'll play solid team defense like every Matta-coached team before them has. If nothing else, Ohio State can make up for Lighty's absence on the defensive end in a way similar to how I expect they'll make up for Diebler's absence on offense.
In truth, more than anything else, Lighty will be missed for his leadership and his role as the locker room glue guy, which might not sound all that important to an outsider, but I assure you is a very big deal. In the four years I played with him, not a single player ever had a problem with Lighty, because his attitude and work ethic were one of a kind. His approach to practice and life in general was infectious and made everyone on the team want to play harder on the court and treat each other with respect off the court. I've been around this year's Ohio State team long enough to confidently say that I don't anticipate any chemistry issues, but Lighty was more valuable from an intangible standpoint than just being the guy who made sure everyone got along. He was also the guy who would get in a teammate's face and tell him to pull his head out of his ass and start playing better, and he was always effective when he did this, because he was respected so much by everyone on the team.
Trust me when I say guys like that matter more than you'd ever think. Buford and/or Sullinger will most likely be the one(s) to take over this role, but there's no way they will be anywhere close to the same level with this as Lighty was.
So really, all Ohio State will be missing are David Lighty's intangibles (which are admittedly important and irreplaceable, but still — their absence shouldn't have that much of an impact on what happens on the court this year). Otherwise, for all intents and purposes, it's pretty much the same team coming back as last year's team, which was the best in all of college basketball. Only now sophomore Jared Sullinger, who is unquestionably the best interior player and arguably the best overall player in America, has a year of experience under his belt, and in the offseason shed some of the baby fat that slowed him down at times last year. And senior Will Buford, who was the best all-around offensive player on the team last year but had to frequently defer to Diebler and Lighty, will be a stud when he's given the freedom that he's wanted for so long. Sophomore Aaron Craft, who is essentially a slightly less talented but slightly headier Mike Conley, will thrive in his first season as a full-time starter after using last season to get his feet wet a little bit. And sophomore Deshaun Thomas — who is basically Ohio State's secret weapon and will become the most polarizing OSU basketball player ever among Buckeye fans within the first 10 games of the season because of his refusal to pass (most OSU fans don't exactly like what they've seen from Thomas so far, but he's already my favorite Ohio State player of all time, and I don't say that as hyperbole) — will finally get to prove that he's got the potential to be the best natural scorer Ohio State has seen in a long time.
Those four guys figure to be the anchor of Matta's notoriously tight rotation,1 with either Williams or sophomore Jordan Sibert likely rounding out the starting five (my guess is that Sibert will get the starting nod to begin the season, but by the end of the year OSU will transition to big ball and start Williams). Scott will no doubt be a part of the regular rotation, and could even contend for that fifth starting spot (he's a point guard, so intuition would tell you that he'd have to play behind Craft, but Matta has made it perfectly clear in the past that he's more concerned with putting his five best players on the floor than making sure all of his players play their preferred positions). Boston College transfer Evan Ravenel will likely find a spot in the rotation, if for no other reason than he's a big guy who can step in for Sullinger or Williams when they get tired or in foul trouble, and sophomore Lenzelle Smith could potentially see some significant minutes if Matta decides to play more guys than he has in years past. But other than that, I don't really expect anyone else to get serious burn. Some view this lack of depth as a weakness, but I tend to think of it the other way — since its best players never leave the floor, Ohio State never stops attacking and never stops trying to step on its opponent's throat.
If you still aren't sold on Ohio State being the favorite to win the national championship this year, consider this: Only one team in the history of the NCAA tournament has ever won it all as the no. 1 overall seed. So while college basketball analysts and fans are quick to jump all over North Carolina's sack, history has shown that the consensus favorite to take home the title rarely ever delivers. Keeping this in mind, I fully expect Ohio State to hang out in North Carolina's shadow all season, get the second or third no. 1 seed in the tournament, and cruise to a national championship after the Tar Heels inevitably get upset.
Well, at least I did before I wrote this and ruined everything by jinxing them.
Mark Titus is the founder and author of the blog Club Trillion. His book, Don't Put Me In Coach, chronicles his career as a walk-on benchwarmer for the Ohio State basketball team and is scheduled to be released in March. You can follow him on Twitter at @clubtrillion.