Some years I have done pretty well, others (like last year) I have not.
But, undaunted, I am back with my annual preview of what lies ahead over the next 3-1/2 months for Thad Matta's first Ohio State men's basketball team. We actually got a small taste for what this season may be about with last night's victory over Towson in the opening round of the Guardians Classic.
Last night, the Buckeyes got the season off to a rousing start with the win over Towson. Obviously, that is not a big enough sample against a good enough opponent to say definitively that OSU will be respectable in Matta's first year on the job.
But there were some great signs. For starters, I liked OSU's depth. Matt Sylvester and Je'Kel Foster provided scoring punch off the bench. That is so important. I would agree with Matta's assessment that Foster, who played on a 30-win junior college team last year, brings a toughness and winning attitude to the table. He looks like a real keeper.
I also liked OSU's defense. Business has picked up on the defensive end of the floor for the Buckeyes.
I also liked OSU's direction. Brandon Fuss-Cheatham missed last week's exhibition after the death of his mother. But his return was like night and day. OSU moved the ball effectively and got an array of layups, dunks and wide open threes, many of them attributable to Fuss-Cheatham's play at the point.
There was plenty to like about Terence Dials, who showed a lot of polish and a ton of effort in his 2004-05 debut. He will be hard to contend with in the paint.
More polish also describes Tony Stockman and J.J. Sullinger. Stockman has the look of a battle-tested, fifth-year senior. He has seen it all and that understanding should help him attack defenses. Yes, you'll have to live with some bad shots now and again. But Matta has Stockman buying in at both ends. Sullinger appears to have added about 10-15 pounds of strength, which should help him.
I also like the way Matta is slowly bringing along true freshmen Jamar Butler and Matt Terwilliger. I liked the small glimpses I have seen of each so far. By season's end, one or the other could be in the top eight or nine playing group.
As for concerns, my biggest is rebounding. OSU is quite small with Dials at 6-9 and 6-8, 215-pound Ivan Harris at power forward. There will be stretches where all five players must go to the defensive glass just to clear the ball. Second- and third-chance opportunities will bear watching.
I am also left to wonder what has happened to junior guard Ricardo Billings. He was the star of his summer league team, but can't seem to get any minutes yet. Maybe that will change as time goes on, but it looks like Foster has swiped some of his minutes so far.
In regards to the schedule, whoever filled this slate out – and I assume it was a combination of the Jim O'Brien staff doing most of it and the new staff just tweaking things at the last minute – probably did the best thing for the program. OSU has some challenging road games (Clemson, Texas Tech and LSU) and a bunch of sure wins on the home schedule. The easiest way to get to 20 wins – especially after two down seasons – is to schedule for it. They have clearly done that with no fewer than eight cupcakes on the home schedule (including the Guardians games).
The Big Ten schedule is a double-edged sword. The beginning is brutal with road games at Illinois, Wisconsin and nonleague foe LSU all by Jan. 15. Ouch. The end also looks tough with a home game with Wisconsin, a visit to Iowa and the home finale with Illinois. The hope has to be that by that time this team will be good enough that it can successfully defend its home court against two of the league's very best teams.
I don't think Matta's presence can be understated here, either. The man is a certified winner, reaching the NCAA Tournament in each of his first four seasons as a college head coach. He came within a basket or two of making the Final Four at Xavier last spring.
Whether Matta has enough magic tricks to help OSU end its two-year NCAA drought remains to be seen. From what I can see, he will be coaching this team all the way through. (Translation: They will be part of March Madness or they'll die trying.)
The following is my game-by-game look at the upcoming season, broken down into four categories and listed chronologically within those categories (all games home, unless noted).
* Towson, Nov. 15 -- I think OSU will win this game 74-53 (ha ha).
* Robert Morris, Nov. 16 -- This is actually one of the most important games of the year when you consider that a win assures OSU of two more games next week in Kansas City. RMU looks to improve on last year's 14-15 mark behind Chaz McCrommon and Maurice Carter.
* Delaware, Nov. 19 -- Harding Nana and Mike Slannery are a nice inside/outside combo for the Blue Hens, who were 16-12 last year.
* Chattanooga, Nov. 27 (at St. John Arena) -- John Shulman takes over this program with Jeff Lebo moving on to Auburn. The Mocs were 19-11 last year and played for the Southern Conference's NCAA berth the last two years. This game is OSU's first at SJA since February 1998. It was moved due to a scheduling conflict at VCA.
* Portland State, Dec. 11 -- It is an OSU tradition to play a cupcake on the end of exam week, and that would apply to the Vikings (11-16 last year). This will be OSU's first game ever against a team from the Big Sky.
* Morehead State, Dec. 19 -- Former Kentucky star Kyle Macy begins his eighth year as the coach at MSU (16-13 last year). OSU is 15-0 all-time against Ohio Valley teams, including wins over MSU in 2000 and 2002.
* Mercer, Dec. 22 -- The Bears were 12-18 last year. Coach Mark Slonaker welcomes back three starters from a team that finished sixth in the Atlantic Sun.
* New Hampshire, Dec. 28 -- UNH (10-20 last year) is led by coach Mark Rowe, who is 36-106 in five years at the America East school.
* Minnesota, Jan. 19 -- Dan Monson's sixth year at UM could be his last if things don't pick up quickly. The Gophers were a dismal 12-18 last year and tied with Penn State for 10th in the conference at 3-13. Monson welcomes back just one starter, guard Adam Boone, and will rely on a collection of transfers and youngsters this season. Good luck. OSU has won five straight at home against UM, dating to 1997.
* Penn State, Jan. 26 -- Marlon Smith solidifies the PSU backcourt, but the frontcourt was decimated by Jan Jagla's decision to turn pro and Robert Summers' transfer to West Virginia. PSU was 9-19 in Ed DeChellis' first year last year and not much more is expected this season.
* Penn State, away, Feb. 12 -- OSU was drubbed 64-47 in State College last year in a game that probably set basketball back about 30 years. PSU is 6-5 against OSU at the Bryce-Jordan Center since joining the Big Ten in 1992-93.
* Minnesota, away, Feb. 19 -- OSU rolled 70-59 at Minnesota last year, one of just three road wins for the Buckeyes last year. The Buckeyes have won eight of their last nine meetings overall with UM.
Free Throws (6)
* Guardians Classic semifinal, Nov. 23 -- As I write this, I have no idea who this opponent could be. My assumption is it will probably be Creighton (20-9 last year), Houston (9-18 last year; new coach Tom Penders at the helm) or Iona (11-18 under Jeff Ruland) as the brackets will be reseeded after tonight's games. Any of those would be a winnable game.
* Iowa, Jan. 8 -- The Hawkeyes (16-13 last year) swept the season series with OSU last year. This could be one of Steve Alford's most talented teams with forward Greg Brunner and guards Jeff Horner and Pierre Pierce all back. OSU is 1-4 all-time against Iowa in Value City Arena. Ouch.
* Northwestern, away, Jan. 29 -- Bill Carmody is on the cusp of something pretty big at NU (14-15 last year). This will be the teams' only meeting. OSU has won the last 10, including four in Evanston, in the series. Versatile Vedran Vukusic leads four returning starters.
* Purdue, Feb. 2 -- This will be Gene Keady's 25th and final trip around the Big Ten circuit before he turns over the reins to former PU player Matt Painter. This will be the teams' only meeting. OSU shocked PU 65-59 in West Lafayette last year. Backcourt mates David Teague and Brandon McKnight form a nice tandem for the Boilers (17-14 last year).
* Michigan, Feb. 5 -- Michigan (23-11 last year) picked up where it left off after winning the postseason NIT by winning a Preseason NIT opener against Binghamton last night at Crisler. Tommy Amaker has four starters back, led by forward Lester Abram and guards Daniel Horton and Dion Harris. UM's athletes were too much in a 75-64 Michigan win at Ann Arbor last year.
* Indiana, Feb. 15 -- IU (14-15 last year) won the rubber match between the schools in the Big Ten tournament after they split their regular season series. Mike Davis has three starters back, led by the high scoring backcourt of Bracey Wright and Marshall Strickland. OSU is 3-2 against IU at VCA.
* Guardians Classic finals, Nov. 24 -- Again, I'm just guessing. But it seems a good bet this could be Missouri (16-14 last year). Quin Snyder is in a rebuilding posture after losing three key starters. If it's Mizzou, Dials and Fuss-Cheatham certainly owe the Tigers for their rude ouster from the 2002 NCAA Tournament (the score was so bad I don't even want to look it up).
* Clemson, away, Dec. 1 -- Stockman gets his homecoming at Clemson with this game in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. Clemson (10-18 last year) is projected as a second-division team in the always tough ACC. But coach Oliver Purnell did a great job at Dayton and will try and weave some magic here. He has three starters back, including forwards Olu Babalola and Sharrod Ford. This will be OSU's first meeting ever with Clemson.
* Texas Tech, Dec. 16 (at Dallas) -- This is the return game from last year, when Bob Knight led the Red Raiders (23-11 last year) into Columbus and pulled out an 80-72 win. Luckily for OSU, they do not have to travel overland to Lubbock as this will be played at the Dallas Mavericks' American Airlines Center. And even more luckily, Andre Emmett, who torched OSU for 27 points last year, won't be around. Knight, spurned all too publicly in his bid to return to his alma mater this past summer, will certainly have his troops ready for this one.
* St. Joseph's, Dec. 31 -- This game has the neat starting time of 6 p.m. on New Years' Eve. St. Joe's was 30-2 last year and rolled all the way to the NCAA's Elite Eight before being knocked out by Oklahoma State. The Hawks will be without the guard tandem of Jameer Nelson and Delonte West, who combined to average nearly 40 points a game last year. But coach Phil Martelli's team is expected to be in the hunt in the Atlantic 10 once again. OSU is 3-0 all-time against St. Joe's, but the teams have not played since 1983.
* LSU, away, Jan. 15 -- This is the first of a two-year deal, apparently, with the Tigers (18-11 last year). As noted, this trip could not be scheduled at a worse time than at the beginning of the Big Ten, when the Buckeyes have tough trips as well to Illinois and Wisconsin and could begin doubting themselves. Coach John Brady welcomes back four starters, led by powerful 6-8 forward Brandon Bass. This will be OSU's first meeting ever with LSU and the school's first trip to the Maravich Assembly Center in Baton Rouge.
* Indiana, away, Jan. 22 -- I had attended 12 straight OSU-Indiana games in Bloomington and seen just three wins in that stretch. But I went on vacation last year and missed OSU's 59-56 triumph in the hallowed Assembly Hall. That was OSU's fifth win ever in 31 visits to Assembly Hall, illustrating how hard it is to win in Bloomington.
* Michigan State, away, Feb. 9 -- And if Assembly Hall is a hard venue, what does that say for MSU's Breslin Center? OSU has lost its last nine trips to East Lansing. MSU won the teams' only meeting last year 84-70 in Columbus and this will be their only meeting this year. Tom Izzo welcomes back all five starters from last year's 18-12 NCAA qualifier. The key names are 6-11 center Paul Davis and guard Chris Hill.
* Wisconsin, Feb. 27 -- Bo Ryan's chances for this season were dealt a solid blow when Big Ten player of the year Devin Harris turned pro. But Ryan has two starters back from last year's 25-7 squad, led by forward Mike Wilkinson. Plus, he gets forward Alando Tucker back from injury, Penn State transfer Sharif Chambliss is eligible and former McDonald's All-American Brian Butch, a 6-11 forward, comes off a redshirt year. Don't look for the Badgers to be down long, if at all.
* Iowa, away, March 2 -- Iowa has owned OSU in Columbus and the Buckeyes have done likewise in Iowa City. Iowa's 79-65 home win last year snapped a four-game OSU winning streak in Carver Hawkeye Arena.
* Illinois, home, March 4 or 5 -- This will be the final scheduled home game, much like last year when the Illini won an outright Big Ten title with a tight 64-63 win in Columbus (you remember, the Fuss-Cheatham proper no-call on the final play). Bruce Weber has all five starters back from his 26-7 Sweet 16 team from a year ago and they want more. Some have this team pegged as a Final Four contender behind preseason Big Ten player of the year pick Deron Williams and backcourt mate Dee Brown.
Half-Court Heaves (2)
* Illinois, away, Jan. 5 -- Welcome to the Big Ten, Coach Matta. The Hoopeston, Ill., native will make his conference debut in his home state. OSU has lost nine of its last 10 visits to that Assembly Hall, including 85-63 last year.
* Wisconsin, away, Jan. 11 -- OSU has lost its last three trips to the Kohl Center, including a 78-48 drubbing last year.
As we total it up, that's 12 Layups (one already made), six Free Throws, 10 Three-Pointers and two Half-Court Heaves.
You have to hit all of your Layups, so give OSU 12 wins. Seventy percent is good on Free Throws, so there are four more. If you hit 40 percent of your Three-Pointers, you are on target, so there are four more. Half-Court Heaves, well, you can pretty much forget those.
That leaves OSU at 20-9 overall and roughly 9-7 in Big Ten play. That should be good enough to place OSU somewhere in the top five and give them a first-round bye in the Big Ten tournament, which moves back to Sweet Home Chicago.
Even with a first-round loss there, the Buckeyes will have enough wins on their card by that point -- not to mention an RPI somewhere in the 30s -- to expect Matta's string of NCAA appearances to continue.
I have been trying my hand at these game-by-game breakdowns of each OSU basketball season since 1995. Here is how I've fared each time:
* 2003-04 -- Last year, I picked OSU to finish 20-9 overall and 10-6 in Big Ten play. I opined that the new look team featuring Stockman and Sullinger would take flight. But it never happened, they dropped their opener to San Francisco, only won one of three games at the Maui Invitational and endured some lopsided losses to the likes of Seton Hall, Georgia Tech, Wisconsin and others. They finished the regular season 14-15 overall and 6-10 in Big Ten play. OSU then ended the suspense early at the Big Ten tournament, losing an opening round game to Indiana to finish 14-16.
* 2002-03 -- I picked OSU to finish 18-9 overall and 10-6 in Big Ten play. Unfortunately, injuries to Fuss-Cheatham and Dials, among others, kept that team from fulfilling its potential. OSU ended the regular season 14-13 overall and 7-9 in Big Ten play. The Buckeyes caught fire and won three games at the Big Ten tournament before being drubbed by Illinois in the finals. The NIT loss at Georgia Tech ended OSU's season at 17-15.
* 2001-02 -- I picked OSU to go 20-7 overall and 10-6 in Big Ten play. Alas, OSU ended the regular season 20-7, but got a piece of the Big Ten title at 11-5 in conference play. After winning the conference tournament and going out in the second round of the NCAA, the Buckeyes finished at 24-8.
* 2000-01 -- I predicted that OSU would finish the regular season 18-11 overall and 8-8 in Big Ten play. The Buckeyes finished the regular season 20-9 and 11-5 (third) in the Big Ten. After the NCAA, OSU finished 20-11.
* 1999-2000 -- I predicted that OSU would finish the regular season 23-7 overall and 12-4 (second) in Big Ten play. OSU actually ended the regular season 22-5 and 13-3 in Big Ten play, earning a piece of the title with Michigan State. The discrepancy in games comes from the preseason NIT, where I believed OSU would play four games instead of just one. And, after all of the postseason was complete, OSU ended up 23-7 anyway.
* 1998-99 -- I had the Buckeyes going 18-11 and 7-9 in Big Ten play. Instead, OSU stunned the basketball world with a 22-7 regular season (12-4 Big Ten, second) before advancing to the Final Four and finishing 27-9.
* 1997-98 -- I picked OSU to go 11-18 overall and 4-12 in Big Ten play. O'Brien's first team finished the regular season 8-21 and 1-15 in the conference.
* 1996-97 -- I had the Buckeyes finishing 15-12 overall and 7-11 in Big Ten play. Instead, the team finished 10-17 overall and 5-13 in the conference, numbers good enough to get Randy Ayers fired.
* 1995-96 -- I picked OSU to finish the regular season 14-13 overall and 7-9 in Big Ten play. The Buckeyes finished 10-17 overall and 3-15 in Big Ten play.
* Summing Up -- In nine years, I have missed on my predictions by an aggregate of 29 wins -- or an average of almost four wins per year. Last year was obviously my worst year as I missed OSU's final regular season mark by six wins.