Five months removed from their season-ending loss to Wichita State in the Elite Eight, the Buckeyes have their eyes set on the upcoming season, head coach Thad Matta's 10th in Columbus. In an exclusive interview, junior forward Sam Thompson told BSB that he's been impressed by the offseason work that he and his teammates have put in thus far with another two months to go until the start of their season.
"The offseason has been going great," Thompson said. "As a team, we've really made strides. We had a great summer conditioning-wise, open gym-wise. Guys are really into it. Guys have made big individual strides and I think we've made big strides as a team. We're excited for the work that we have right now, so we had a great offseason."
With the departure of Deshaun Thomas and graduation of Evan Ravenel, the Buckeyes will attempt to replace not only their leading scorer from a season ago but two of their top three rebounders. Factor in the loss of leadership that OSU will endure with last season's captains no longer on its roster, and it's not difficult to see that this season's team will have a different feel than its predecessor.
Nevertheless, Thompson feels good about the direction of this year's squad and knows that it will take a group effort to replace the production that Thomas and Ravenel provided.
"Guys know that with the departure of Evan and D.T. that we have to step up. It may not be one guy. A few guys have to step up this year," Thompson said. "Coach Matta said from the beginning, with Deshaun's departure, no one guy is going to take his 16 shots, his 20 points. We have to have a few guys who step up and improve next season and I think that we've put the work in this offseason to do that."
While the Buckeyes will return two scholarship seniors in Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith Jr. to go along with a quintet of juniors in Thompson, Shannon Scott, LaQuinton Ross, Amir Williams and Trey McDonald, they'll also be relying on some fresh blood as well.
For the first time since 2011, Matta and his staff have recruited multiple players in a single season, with four-star prospects Marc Loving and Kameron Williams joining the OSU roster. According to Thompson, the two freshmen have adjusted well to their new home in Columbus as they work towards becoming key contributors in the coming season.
"They've really impressed us with their work ethic and their desire to get better," Thompson said of his new teammates. "The freshmen are doing pretty well right now."
But regardless of who it is taking the court for the Buckeyes, Thompson said that Ohio State fans can rest assured that the program's identity will not change. The 6-7 forward wouldn't mind seeing an improvement from his team offensively this season but knows that its success will be defined on the other end of the floor.
"We're a defensive-oriented team. We're a tough basketball team, we're a defensive-minded team. That's really what we've hung our hat on the past couple of seasons," he said. "We need to be able to score the ball better than we did last year and improve on the successes that we had last year. We're definitely going to hang our hat on our defense and go from there."
Given that the Buckeyes won last year's Big Ten Tournament title and five of the last eight conference regular-season championships, it's hard to argue with the results that Matta's system has yielded in his near-decade in Columbus. Even after what appeared to be a season-derailing 71-49 loss at Wisconsin last season, Ohio State managed to bounce back with 11 consecutive wins and was on the cusp of what would've been the program's second consecutive Final Four appearance.
While Thompson was pleased with the resiliency that the Buckeyes showed last season, he'd like this year's squad to not need to hit rock bottom before it hits its stride. And if that type of maturity can be found in the coming months, then the Chicago native said that there's no telling what Ohio State will be capable of in the upcoming season.
"The beginning was that Wisconsin loss. I think we really came together and began to play for a cause bigger than ourselves," Thompson said of last season. "If we can really start that process earlier in the season, if we can do it without getting our butts kicked on national television, then the sky really is the limit for us."