Some words on the schedule and more

The football season kicks off six days from now, so what better time to talk about basketball, right? AT Buckeye checks in today with a look at the OSU schedule and more.

It may be a little early to be thinking about Hoops—after all the Football team has yet to suit up for its first game.  But, hey my hand has been forced.  The 2002-2003 schedule came out earlier this week, and right away the initial reaction is a raised eyebrow and a pensive look.  The 2001-2002 took a lot of heat earlier in the year for scheduling too many patsies like Winthrop, Albany, and IUPUI.  If you look closely, that level of opponent is still there (what high-major program doesn't snack on at least 6 cupcakes these days?), but it's the other non-conference high-majors that draw attention.  Duke, Alabama, Pittsburgh, and Louisville will all spend some time in the standings at some point in the season.  The first three are legitimate pre-season top-10 material.  None of those three will face the Bucks at the Schott.  Wow.

The stated goals of the program are, or rather should be to

A)     Win the National Title

B)      Make the Final 4

C)      Win the Big Ten Title

So how will the season go, an will the Bucks attain these goals?  I advise everyone to also keep in mind that the Big 10 is still not the power conference it was as recently as 2 years ago.  I don't think you are going to find a consensus pick for the championship—but, that's another conversation for another day.  Now about the schedule………


THE FOUNDATION

Coppin St., Tennessee Tech, Morehead St., Radford, Tennessee St., Hampton, Northwestern (7)

These 7 games should be, in a word, gimmes.  The first 6 are scheduled with the express purpose of giving the Bucks something to chew on in the non-conference period.  Northwestern played the game of their lives in Columbus last year—and still came up short.  Without Tavares Hardy, they will be hard pressed to make that kind of a run again.  Remember, the Wildcats have not topped the Bucks since the day Jermaine Tate and Scott Gradney roamed the paint.

A couple of notes here---  Morehead St. does have a skilled backcourt performer named Ricky Minard worth watching.  2 guard is a position OSU should have issues defending.  It should be interesting to see if Hampton is still the same team that made back to back NCAA trips, including a first round upset of #2 seed Iowa St. in 2000.  The technician of those years, Steve Merfield, has moved on to Evansville----  we shall see, but I really have to doubt it.  The game will serve as a homecoming for Columbus City League product Isaac Jefferson.  Oh and one last thing.  I dare anyone to find a cooler handle than Coppin St. coach Ron "Fang" Mitchell.

MUST HAVES

Seton Hall, Michigan, @Penn St, IOWA, @Northwestern (5)

If the Bucks are serious about the previously mentioned goals, these games need to be in the win column also.  Seton Hall is a big name from a big conference, but is not as noticeably stacked as previous editions.  The backcourt trio of John Allen, Andre Barrett, and Marcus Toney-El are the most likely to produce offensively, but a lack of any appreciable inside game should prove lethal on the Buckeyes' home floor.  UM has not been competitive with OSU in recent years, but the importation of McDonald's All-American Daniel Horton and smooth wing Lester Abram to go along with holdovers Bernard Robinson and LaVell Blanchard should at least make the Weaselmen competitive.  Again, a lack of an inside game should give the Bucks the edge.  Penn St. has a smallish, but explosive backcourt, but nothing else.  Iowa is breaking in a lot of new skill players and has no real "go-to" guy.  Northwestern should be slightly tougher on their homecourt, but should find a way to extend their record of futility against the Buckeyes.

These 5 games need to be in the "W" column, or else thoughts of any post-season participation will be in serious jeopardy.

THE DECIDING FACTORS

Louisville, Indiana, Wisconsin, @ Iowa, @Purdue, Minnesota, @Illinois, @Michigan, Purdue (9)

These are the games that will prove whether or not the Buckeyes will be in the position to meet any of their seasonal goals.  None of these will be won without a fight, but all of them, at least in my opinion, are within reach.  If the Bucks sweep the first two groups, and do (7-2) or better against this group, a spot in the Big Dance awaits.

Louisville will clearly present challenges.  Rick Pitino is starting to craft this into a team he can win with and will have several new weapons to sic on the Bucks this year.  Gone are headcase Brandon Bender and McDonald's All-American Carlos Hurt.  In are frosh point man Taquan Dean and Kentucky Transfer Marvin Stone (who will be eligible for this game).  Leading scorer Reece Gaines also returns.  This will be a battle.  The Hoosiers return a large portion of their National Finalist squad, with one glaring exception.  Jarred Jeffries is now a member of the Washington Wizards.  There is still firepower here (Tom Coverdale, Jeffrey Newton, Frosh Bracey Wright), but there are weak spots (RE: INSIDE) where the Bucks could do damage.   And did I mention Jared Jeffries isn't there anymore?  Ah yes, we are also rid of Dane Fife once and for all.  Wisconsin also shared the title in 01-02, and has first team all-conference guard Kirk Penney back along with talented sophomores Mark Wilkinson and Devin Harris.  A lack of an experienced point guard may give the Bucks the "in" they need here.  Iowa will be tougher on their home floor, but need to find somewhere to get points.  Pierre Pierce and Glenn Worley seem the most likely candidates, but neither has a good track record.  Purdue, believe it or not, will be much improved with the workmanlike Kenny Lowe back from a year lost to a bum shoulder.  If Lowe can improve Willie Deane's overall contribution (less shots, more defense) and maybe inspire the ultra-talented Demetrius Kilgore, this squad might be the surprise of the conference.  Gene Keady will likely resign before becoming a 4-time chump—if in fact this year goes no better than the last 2.  Ah yes, the graduation of John Allison in the post is actually addition by subtraction for the Boilers.

Minnesota and the wonderfully gifted Rick Rickert may pose one of the greatest challenges in this set of games.  I really think this guy will be the league's best this year—Jared Jeffries with a better perimeter jumper.  Yikes.  Buckeye fans need to turn out in droves for that game—given it's positioning in the schedule it may be the deciding point in the season.  Illinois has lost a significant part of their team from last year, but still returns the highly skilled Brian Cook.  If someone reminds Cook that he actually has the best all-around game in the league outside of Rickert, look out.  Lots of young backcourt performers and a dependence on a freshman point guard (albeit a very talented one in Dee Brown—does this one wear the Reebok "Pump" I wonder?) may be the weak spots the Buckeyes exploit.  Like Iowa, the Men of Weasel will be tougher in Ann Arbor and can cause problems if they can speed up the game.  Purdue at home should be interesting—as by the end of the season Keady's boys will know if they are contending or the same waste of oxygen they have been the past two seasons.

THE BONUS BALLS

Alabama, Duke, @Pittsburgh, @Michigan St, @Indiana, MICHIGAN ST. (6)

I'll say this as clearly as I can.  If OSU has a winning record in this set of games, Jim O'Brien will have trumped himself yet again.  This is as imposing a group as can be assembled from the College Basketball landscape of 02-03.  Alabama, despite the defection of Rod Grizzard to the pro ranks, will be loaded.  Reigning SEC player of the year Erwin Dudley will be a major pain in the butt for the Buckeye frontcourt, and his sidekick Kenny Walker is also problematic.  Sophomore point guard Maurice Williams is the key to the whole squad.  If the Buckeyes can find a way to derail him they might be able to find a way to win, but don't expect the oddsmakers to give the Bucks much of a chance.  Duke is less scary than previous editions, but as the gold standard in the game, they will ALWAYS be formidable.  Chris Duhon should be every bit the nuisance Jason Williams was—look for big numbers from this guy this year.  He and Daniel Ewing will give the Buckeyes all they can handle.  The front court will be loaded with skilled Freshmen (Shav Randolph and Shelden Williams, he of the bad Columbus hotel stay) and veteran Dahntay Jones.  If the Bucks can compete with the Devils, the positive effects on the program (compounded with the talent on deck for 03) should produce a nice slingshot effect for the program's future.  Pitt returns All-American point man Brandin Knight and will be on their home floor.  If OSU, by some miracle, can neutralize Knight, the rest of the squad can be worked on.  There's some nice complementary players, but nowhere near the kind of raw talent that a Michigan St. or a Duke has at its disposal.  That is one big "if" however.  The home and home with Sparty will prove interesting as always.  The men of Izz pulled off their first win at the Schott last year, costing the Buckeyes an outright league title.  Lots of raw talent is Sparty's calling card and this year will be no different—Kelvin Torbert, Adam Ballinger, Aloysius Anagonye, and Chris Hill all have all-league potential.  And that's not even counting ultra-talented newcomers Ezram Lorbeck, Matt Trannon, and likely conference Frosh of the year Paul Davis.  Taking down Izzo's gang will prove a monumental task on a yearly basis.  Write this down--- The road to the Big 10 title will go through Michigan St.  OSU V. Indiana at Bloomington will be worth the price of admission.  The Bucks are still sore from the goon tactics Coverdale and Fife unleashed on them last year—if OSU can find a way to get their frontcourt more involved, Indiana may have a hard time putting this one in the "W" column.


03 RECRUITING

Things have really taken a turn on this front.  At one time, before transfers threw their name into the hat, there were as many as 5 scholarships to hand out to this class.  Now there could be none, outside of the one already earmarked for Ivan Harris.  Whether or not any additions are made to the 03' roster will hinge on how Ricardo Billings does in his quest to attain the proper credentials to gain scholarship aid.  If he makes the proper progress, he should claim the last scholarship in 03.  If he does not, look for the Bucks to go hunting again in the spring.

It's hard to say what will be available in that period—it's usually loaded with late risers like Marcus Morrison from 01.  That's probably a conversation for another day.  Two players that will likely still be looked at, if they have not committed already, will be Hassan Fofana, the center out of Massachusetts and Mike Pilgrim, the swing forward from Cincinnati currently prepping in Virginia. 

Another development that bears watching for hoops fans is the potential addition of Michael Bush to the football roster.  This all-world utility player is also the frontrunner for Mr. Basketball in hoops-crazy Kentucky.  Nate Salley may be doing the two-sport thing as a hobby, but Bush has the ability to take it to another level.  Even if Bush one day decides to concentrate on an NFL career, the fact remains, he will cost nothing to Coach O'Brien in terms of investment.  His scholarship will be a football one.  And who turns down Mr. Basketballs these days anyway? 

04 should be an extremely active period for the Bucks.  4 Scholarships to give and plenty of targets in the traditional Buckeye hunting grounds of Ohio, Michigan, and the Northeast.  Stay tuned on that front.


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