Despite Losses, Great Expectations Await

The Ohio State basketball team lost a lot of talent after last season when saying goodbye to David Lighty, Jon Diebler, and Dallas Lauderdale. But with key pieces like Jared Sullinger returning, the expectations for Ohio State to be great remain.

Don't blame Ohio State assistant coach Jeff Boals for not jumping on the Buckeye bandwagon by stating his squad is one of the elite teams in college basketball in 2012.

He just prefers for the bandwagon to start moving forward before boarding.

It's not that Boals doesn't see potential for Ohio State to be one of the best teams in the game for a second consecutive year, he just knows there's more that goes into expectations than just throwing them out there.

"Within the program our goals are the same every year. They don't change," Boals said. "Our goal is to win a national championship. We don't hide behind the fact that we do want to win one… It just may be a process."

Since Jared Sullinger opted to spurn what likely would have been a high lottery pick in the NBA Draft to return to Ohio State for his sophomore season, it has been all too easy to pick the Buckeyes as one of the best teams in the nation.

The 6-9, 280-pound Sullinger — the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year — will once again lead a Buckeyes team coming off a trip to the Sweet 16 after posting an incredibly impressive 34-3 overall record.

Also returning is senior guard William Buford, one of the purest scorers in the nation that some also projected was ready for the NBA after his junior season.

All the pieces seem to be in place for a run, at least to national college basketball prognosticators.

"Ohio State, led by sophomore All-American power forward Jared Sullinger, versatile guard William Buford and sturdy point guard Aaron Craft, had been an easy choice to sit just beyond North Carolina and Kentucky and perhaps sneak in to swipe the (national) title if neither claimed it," wrote Michael DeCourcy, a national college basketball writer for Sporting News.

Boals is all too familiar with statements like that, as they've been quite prevalent in most publications forecasting the upcoming season. With practice yet to kick off for Ohio State, however, he is just not even close to buying into the hype around this year's squad.

"It may not be something that happens like it did last year," said Boals, who understands what it takes to make a deep run into the NCAA Tournament. "I don't want to say (last year was) once in a lifetime – but to go 34-3 is pretty impressive. There might be some bumps along the road."

One thing Boals would never deny is Ohio State's ascension in less than a decade to being one of the premier programs in college basketball under head coach Thad Matta.

Because of Ohio State's success under Matta the last seven years — which included a trip to the national title game in 2007 — Boals expects Ohio State will be in the national discussion annually for years to come.

"I think Coach Matta has done a great job of building a great foundation here and I have always told people is that the most amazing thing about Thad to me is that he has been able to win four different Big Ten championship with three different teams."

If Matta plans on winning conference crown No. 5 this season, some may not realize that it would be with a fourth different team.

Even with the return of Sullinger, Buford, and Craft — not to mention hotshot sophomore scorer Deshaun Thomas — Boals doesn't quite think people appreciate how much the Buckeyes will have to overcome from losses sustained a year ago.

The result will be a completely different team than the one that enjoyed plenty of success — including a long reign on top of the national polls — before making a run in the NCAA Tournament.

Gone is David Lighty, the player who has enjoyed the all-time most wins in Ohio State basketball history, and he's joined by three-point sharpshooter Jon Diebler and shot-blocking specialist Dallas Lauderdale.

All three departing seniors from a year ago signed contracts to play professional basketball overseas.

"Any time you have guys who have been here multiple years you can't substitute for experience," Boals said. "When you lose a guy like David Lighty, who is the winningest player in Ohio State history, and Jon Diebler who played in a lot of big games and Lauderdale in a lot of big games, you just don't replace that kind of experience."

Experience won't be easily replaced, but finding a way to duplicate the production those three players had last year will be the real feat.

Specifically with the 6-5, 220-pound Lighty, who averaged 12.1 points and four boards per game in his senior season, was Ohio State's Mr. Everything. Perhaps his biggest asset to the team was his ability to staunchly defend all five opposing positions on the floor if needed.

Then there was Diebler, who led last year's team in minutes per game with 35.7 per contest, all while working toward putting together the best shooting percentage from beyond the arc — .502 — in the Big Ten.

Finally the Buckeyes will be without Lauderdale. Though he started for the Buckeyes in his final season with the team, his role was limited to just 16 minutes per contest. Even so, the 6-8, 255-pounder registered 54 blocks while playing key defensive minutes.

"It's a huge loss. That's one of the big things coming into this year is that there's a lot of question marks," Boals said. "But you have some freshmen and younger players last year that didn't play a whole lot that are going to be expected to do some things and fill the void that Jon, Dave and Dallas left."

Still the expectations remain and Ohio State will be put in a position to live up to those early in the season with some huge non-conference games, namely against Duke and Kansas.

With the Buckeyes all but certainly poised to begin the season in a high position in the polls, Boals stressed the importance of the youthful team blocking out the hype that already exists. Last year, Boals cited, Ohio State was incredibly successful because it didn't think twice about being ranked as the top team in the country. Not even for a minute.

"Coming off the year we had last year, won the Big Ten, there's going to be a bulls eye on our back," Boals said. "That's one thing our guys have to understand and know going into every game, regardless of who we're playing. It doesn't matter who it is – everyone is going to want to beat us.

"That's one good thing last year we handled the adversity and pressure because we were everyone's A-Game and the new guys have to understand that and have the maturity to focus in on the task at hand on a game-by-game basis."

Boals will acknowledge the potential for "bumps in the road," particularly because the team doesn't have a veteran-laden roster to keep the youthful players grounded amidst the pressure of big-time college basketball.

But if things come together, the Buckeyes could be back as a focal point in college basketball's biggest stage.

"Obviously losing the seniors we lost this past year and not losing anyone early to the draft," Boals said. "We have a good nucleus back that played in a lot of games last year for us and four of those guys (returning) were a big part of the success that we had. We want to do it again."

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