Has it been just one year? Only one measly year since the Ohio State football team managed an all too mortal 7-5 record? Despite it being a fine mark considering the challenges faced by that team with a new coaching staff, the jackals were gathering to nip at his heels… There were doubters asking if Jim Tressel was over his head in D-IA football. They questioned his ability to take the program to the next level. They questioned his ability to recruit (before he landed the 2002 class)…
I remember walking into campus area stores that carried Ohio State merchandise following the 1999, 2000, and 2001 seasons. The shops were largely empty, and a fan could buy an entire truckload of memorabilia and clothing for a song. Seemingly everything was on sale since the goods were not moving quickly enough to suit the owners' needs, but a recent trip to Columbus showed just how much has changed. The stores were so crowded I thought I was in Pamplona waiting for the running of the bulls was to commence. Prices had undergone a metamorphosis. It seems that in order to buy the same merchandise from the previous three seasons now would require not only maxing out a credit card but also the signing over of my first-born child…
The football Bandwagon has rolled into town. It is so full that it looks like one of those crazy Guinness Book stunts where 237 people have crammed themselves into a VW Bug. Buckeye gear - always a fairly common sight - has now become the wardrobe of choice. Buckeye pictures - recently seen only in the homes of the die-hard nuts - are now the dominant décor in Ohio Art Museums.
What does this have to do with Basketball?
Consider that these days it is the Men's Basketball program taking the heat at Ohio State. Spoiled by the success of none other than coach Jim O'Brien, a vocal minority of fans and alumni are complaining. First there are the comments about the recruiting (which was dealt with in the first installment). Now there is the matter of the 17-15 mark by the 2002-03 Basketball team. Some have concluded (erroneously) that Jim O'Brien and his principles will not allow the Buckeyes to compete for a March Madness run for the ages…
My advice is to get on the Basketball bandwagon right now. Get your seats early because by this time in 2004 - the wagon projects to be overflowing. Come next December and January, there will be a mad dash with people trampling one another climbing aboard.
Buckeye fans everywhere should sit down and take a gander at the projected roster for the male Hoopsters next season.
Brandon Fuss-Cheatham - While other highly thought of point guards in his recruiting class have exploded onto the college basketball scene (T.J. Ford to name one), Brandon has seemingly struggled. However, it might behoove fans to step back and consider a few items before labeling him a bust. First, Brandon has been injured this year. Try cutting on a dime (a necessary skill for any guard) or shooting the basketball with proper form while saddled with a bum knee. It is no picnic in a simple playground pick-up game, but it is a severe liability in D-IA basketball. Second, Brandon is a true sophomore. If a basketball player is only to be given a couple of seasons to develop or be labeled a failure, then there are a lot of successful failures that have played at Ohio State. Two that immediately come to mind are Treg Lee and Ken Johnson. Neither one had stellar careers early but both finished strong as upperclassmen. Third, Brandon can score and did so a great deal in High School. Whether this is an injury or a confidence problem is for he and the coaches to figure out, but he does have talent. Finally, Brandon can pass the ball beautifully. He knows how to get the ball to his teammates, and this is the most important skill for any true point guard. Say for just a moment that Brandon does not project to score 5-10 points per game. If he takes care of the ball and ends up with 10 assists, he could and would lead this team to glory. Expect Fuss-Cheatham to improve next year and prove some doubters wrong.
Tony Stockman - Tony, a former Mr. Ohio in Basketball, played two years at Clemson. During that time he averaged 12.1 points per game and made 37.3% of his three point shots (hitting 155). He is capable of playing either the point guard or the off guard position, which should create a wonderful new toy for Jim O'Brien to play with. O'Brien might field a lineup with just Stockman or just Fuss-Cheatham at point guard to run the team, or he could put both of them in and drive defenses as crazy as a feline on catnip. At 6'1", Tony will not have the size to play a guard/forward role, but he can and will stretch the defense to the perimeter with his three point shooting. This will allow the point guard (be it Tony or Brandon) to have open lanes to pass the ball into the big men (see Dials, Harris, or Radinovic) or toss it to a driving offensive threat such as Sullinger or even Billings.
Ricardo Billings - Expected to contribute a great deal this past season, Ricardo (and the basketball team) suffered a devastating blow when he was ruled academically ineligible. Like Stockman and Sullinger, he sat on the bench, but unlike Tony and J.J., he was not able to practice with the team. This means that while Ricardo will likely show flashes of brilliance early in the season for the 2003-04 basketball team, fans and alums should be patient and take a long view with him. He will probably be as rusty as the wheel-wells of a 79 Chevrolet in November, but he has the potential to be a Rolls-Royce caliber player by next March. A 6' 3" guard who was rated among the top 100 players in the nation out of High School, Billings is not only a big get recruiting-wise, but more importantly - he provides an offensive punch sadly lacking this past season.
Emonte Jernigan - After the Billings' ineligibility was discovered, the Ohio State coaching staff scrambled to find warm bodies to create depth. They found Jernigan, who was a man without a team so to speak. Given the immediate need, they took him and counted themselves fortunate. Though this past season has to be labeled a disappointment, if he can regain his shooting touch - Emonte has the chance to be a real scoring threat. He could provide that instant offense off of the bench at the guard position with some quick 3-point shots. For all that he did not explode upon the scene in 2002-03, it is interesting to note that Jernigan did nail 30.4% of his free throws and was a 70.7% free throw shooter. He will be the team leader in 3-point shots and stands second in free throw percentage to start 2003. If he can improve those percentages, play 10-15 minutes, and score 5-7 points per game for the Buckeyes next season, then he will perform a key role for the team. Defenses will be forced to extend to the perimeter and tire themselves out while the Buckeyes stay fresh as a daisy.
J. J. Sullinger - Here is one of the crown jewels of the team in 2003-04. Countless Buckeye fans (and probably the coaching staff as well) gnashed their teeth watching this talented, athletic young man playing for Nolan Richardson. As a mere freshman, he was the best player for the Razorbacks. He scored 20 points against a top 10 Oklahoma State squad and ended his inaugural hoops campaign averaging 9.4 points per game with only 21 minutes of court time. The sky is the limit for what J. J. can accomplish if he has progressed in his defensive skills during this past year at Ohio State. He probably has more athleticism than any player at the 3 spot over the last decade. Only Jason Singleton (who played on the Final Four team in 1998-99 and did all the "dirty work" defensively) comes close. Though there are some questions what a set offensive scheme will have on his game (Arkansas played a running style rather than a half-court offense), Sullinger has the talent to break down a defense. He can both penetrate to create his own shot or penetrate and dish off to a teammate. Look for him to get extended minutes in 2003-04.
Matt Sylvester - Here is a young man who due to unfortunate twists of fate has thus far been less effective than hoped. Sylvester entered as another member of the much anticipated Brandon Fuss-Cheatham, Jaquan Hart, Terence Dials class, but after suffering through back troubles and an unfortunate wound to his backside - his ability to contribute was questioned early this past season. The good news is that Matt showed flashes of brilliance and is only a redshirt sophomore this fall. He played almost 22 minutes a game and averaged nearly 3 rebounds and 6 points per contest. With his size and skill set, he has the potential to play the 3 spot next year for the Buckeyes, or he can be used as a forward. Either way, he has the potential to create a mismatch for the Scarlet and Gray. The bad news is that Matt must take better care of the basketball next season; he finished with 48 turnovers to only 46 assists. Matt will either provide depth (from the bench) in 2003-04, or he could be a starter. The talent is there; the only remaining question is whether or not Sylvester will maximize that potential through hard work and doing what his coaches ask of him.
Center and Forward
Ivan Harris - Ivan Harris shot up the recruiting rankings in the summer of 2002 because he flat out abused other highly rated players at the basketball camps. After transferring to Oak Hill Academy, the 6'9" forward played well enough to earn a spot on the McDonald's All American squad. Perhaps his game is not so flashy as others who demand the ball, but Ivan will not force the issue. He plays within the game, and if the shot is not there, he will not take it. This is a positive in that it means he will not likely turn the ball over or toss up quick shots just so that he can get his number of attempts. As he matures, Harris will learn just when and where the game situation demands that he take over or force the ball up and into the hoop. He has the ability to shoot from the perimeter but can also rebound - a dangerous combination. While Ohio State fans should not expect Harris to come in and dominate the Big Ten, they can look to him to provide valuable minutes, a scoring threat, a willingness to rebound, and an unselfish game.
Terence Dials - High expectations rested upon Terence after his freshman campaign. However, like the rest of the team and program, 2002-03 is likely best forgotten from his perspective. First there was the ankle sprain that severely hampered his development during the summer months. Then in December it was discovered that Dials had stress fractures in his lumbar spine that would sideline him for several months. As a result, Dials was redshirted. With a disappointing season behind him, it is likely that fans can look to see improvement in 2003-04. His athleticism and physical play under the rim will force teams to account for him and place a body on Dials in order to keep him from dominating the boards. Further, his ability to finish once he has the ball down low was something this team sadly missed, but you can bet it will be exploited by the coaches and his teammates next year. Defenses will have to account for him and perhaps even double team him once he gets close to the basket, and this will result either in free throws for Terence or in a wide open shot for a teammate along the perimeter…
Shun Jenkins - A junior college transfer, Shun provided valuable minutes to the undermanned Buckeye squad. After averaging 5 points and 6 rebounds a game, he looks to do the same in 2003. In order to start, he must improve defensively, learn not to turn the ball over, and raise his scoring percentage (a lowly .364 for the season). Still, no matter if he comes in off of the bench or is placed in the starting lineup, Jenkins provides depth and effort. He is a player that fans root for because the effort appears to be there. He is a player that defenses have to keep an eye on so that he does not dominate the boards. He gives O'Brien yet another body to toss inside that will either give Ohio State a situational advantage or wear out an opposition player so that others can exploit that man later in the game.
Zach Williams - Though his current status is unknown for 2003-04, Zach has clearly played with a great deal of pride and given maximum effort while on the floor. While fans may lose patience with his inability to finish down low, Zach is at least trying to be physical which is something that this team has sadly lacked. Watch him and notice just how hard he works inside to gain his position. Note that he is not taking plays off or just being soft. He uses his body well and as a direct result he averaged close to 10 points per game over the past two seasons with better than 5 rebounds to his credit. Zach's return will provide O'Brien with still another option at the forward position. Given that Coach O'Brien is a master with his substitutions, fans can rest assured that it will be fun for the Buckeyes but no fun for the opposition when Zach enters the game.
Charles Bass - Charles is a gangly young man out of Chicago who has a real future at Ohio State. Though troubled by his knees in 2002-03, he played in 15 games - averaging about 5 minutes per contest. The issue with him is that he must add weight and get those knees in shape for him to play long stretches in the future. Even if he does not reach that point though, Bass provides a very needed piece of the puzzle. He shows great promise as a defensive stopper and shot blocker around the basket. This type of player can be invaluable when protecting a lead late in a game or just forcing turnovers and poor shot angles in a close contest. Certainly it has not been all that long since Buckeye fans watched Ken Johnson change entire games with his ability to reject shots in the lane and protect his teammates when they made a defensive mistake.
Vladimir Radinovic - Although Radinovic has been a favorite target of fans' ire; I have a feeling that much will be forgiven after this coming season. An excellent ball handler for a 7-footer, Radinovic showed measurable progress down the stretch for the Buckeyes. In just over 25 minutes per game this past season, he averaged 9.3 points, 6.1 rebounds, and shot .738 from the free throw line and 51.4% from the floor. While those numbers may not be in the realm of Shaq or Yao, they are nothing to sneeze at either. If he improves as much between his junior and senior campaign as he did between his sophomore and junior seasons, Radinovic will be difficult to keep off of the floor and even more difficult to keep off of the scoreboard. For those who doubt this, consider that with most of the polished high school big men jumping to the NBA in recent seasons, those that are left are often projects. Radinovic (like Ken Johnson) is making steady progress, and he has the abilities to have a breakout campaign this fall if he dedicates himself to improvement in the off-season.
Matt Marinchick - Matt is a role player. He will provide depth in the case of injuries (see this past season for an example) and affords O'Brien the luxury of a big man with fouls to give whenever needed. Panned by many, if he can improve defensively, Matt still has two years left to develop and contribute on the court. Whether he will or not is uncertain, but at the very least, he gives the coaching staff another substitution option when in a bind.
What does this Mean?
Take a look at the players on the projected roster for 2003-04. There are some mighty fine athletes there that can play the game of basketball. The more of those you have at your disposal as a coach, the better off you are likely to do and the smarter you will look when the season is over.
Yes, all of the wheels could come off with another rash of injuries. However, it is doubtful that Ohio State will see another year in the near future where fully half of the players were unavailable for games. How bad was the situation? If Billings is included in the equation, 5 of the players the staff had counted on this season were unavailable at one time or another (most for extended periods). Radinovic, Dials, Fuss-Cheatham, Bass, and Billings were all badly needed. Toss in Sullinger and Stockman as transfers, and that elevates the number of unavailable players to 7. That is bad enough on a football team with 85 scholarships to hand out, but it is a bloodbath in men's basketball considering that teams have only 13 scholarships available. This would be tantamount to the Buckeye football team fielding only 46 healthy players with another 7 blue-chip freshman sitting in the stands because they did not achieve a high enough test score. I challenge anyone to try and take such a team to the NCAA Tournament, playing quality teams like Duke, Pitt, Illinois, MSU, Louisville, Wisconsin, etc. Nor does this call into consideration the fact that both Darby played extended minutes with injuries to ankles, shooting hands, thighs, etc.
Yes, the lack of an established scorer has the potential to create problems. Still, for all that the team has questions about who will provide the scoring in 2003-04, there is no question whatsoever that several of these players can and will score. Stockman and Sullinger in particular have to whet the appetite of those clamoring for more offense. These are players who can slash to the hoop and create space not only for their own shot but also for that of others. Radinovic looks to have more offense in his game than he is credited with so long as the guards can dish it to him inside. Then there are Harris and Billings who should not be thought of as the main weapons in the Buckeye arsenal, but they can and will stick the ball in the hoop enough to create defensive problems. Factor in that the more a team can substitute, the more they wear out the opposition and the easier it becomes to score, and were I a betting man - I would lay a handsome sum that the 2003-04 team will not have many problems in this department.
Yes, for all the talent, the team will be young with Billings, Sullinger, Dials, Harris, Bass, and Sylvester all vying for minutes. On the other hand, that should also excite fans beyond measure. These young men will likely form a handsome nucleus around which Jim O'Brien can build powerful teams from now until 2006. Looking at the rest of the projected scholarship players along with the young blood, this team is the most talented Ohio State has seen since at least the 1998-99 squad and possibly longer. It has more depth than any Jim O'Brien has had in his tenure in Columbus; for a coach who excels with his substitution patterns, just thinking of his next season has to bring on some sort of nirvana.
In the end, the final assessment is that those who are not on board the bandwagon now should consider reserving a seat. The 2003-04 team will have two solid centers - one of which will be a senior, experienced guards, depth to spare at every position, athleticism, and the ability to play any style of game necessary. They can choose to run a team to death or merely pound them inside. They will be able to rain threes from the perimeter or force the ball in from down low. They will have the ability to play man defense or zone. The Buckeyes will have a fine coaching staff led by Jim O'Brien. Not only has he led the Scarlet and Gray to the postseason every year for the past 5, but he also has two league titles and a final four in his first six seasons on the job. Coach O'Brien has an uncanny knack for game management and the ability to win even when undermanned. Don't look now, but other coaches in the league have to be wondering what might happen when the man has the same or better depth than they do for just once. Mark it down - the Buckeyes will return to the NCAA tournament and make some noise providing the selection committee does not give them the royal once over a second time in three years...
Watch for AT Buckeye's Upcoming Article in Bucknuts the Magazine. AT will be examining the top newcomers to the squad for 2003-04.
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