Trying To Live Up To The Hype

The preseason votes are in, and the two-time defending Big Ten champions have been pegged to finish near the top of the heap. In our first report from the Big Ten Basketball Media Day in Chicago, the Buckeyes and a few others weigh in on what the 2007-08 season could hold.

CHICAGO – Senior guard Jamar Butler said he was "shocked." Head coach Thad Matta said he was touched by the respect paid to his team's program. Sophomore guard/forward David Lighty said he is "excited."

That's right, the Big Ten preseason picks have been released. At Sunday's Big Ten Basketball Media Day in the Windy City, a team with just one returning starter for the second consecutive season was tabbed to finish third in the conference. Although coaches and players alike will tell you they do not care who is picked where when the season begins – only when it culminates – the fact that a team facing as many question marks as the Buckeyes are seems to be somewhat crashing the preseason party.

However, Butler said he can trace OSU's preseason ranking to one clutch shot taken last March.

"I was shocked when I saw that," he told BuckeyeSports.com. "I figured we ranked in the bottom half somewhere with everything we lost. I think a lot of that had to do with the run that we had last year, getting to the Final Four and playing in the national championship game. If Ron Lewis hadn't hit that shot against Xavier, we probably would've been in the bottom half."

Although the 6-1, 185-pound guard – who was tabbed to the league's preseason all-conference squad – knows this year's team owes some of its hype to last season's team, Butler said Ohio State could be fielding a very different squad this season had Lewis' shot fallen short.

"Mike (Conley) probably would've been back, and probably (Daequan) Cook too," he said, referring to two of the team's three freshmen who declared for the NBA Draft after their freshman campaign and were selected in the first round.

However, with the team the Buckeyes could field this season, they could be one of many teams to challenge within the upper echelon of the conference. The odds-on favorite is Michigan State, which went 23-12 and finished tied for seventh a season ago but did not lose a single player due to graduation.

The Spartans are also led by preseason player of the year Drew Neitzel, a guard who nearly single-handedly engineered a second-half comeback against the Buckeyes in Value City Arena last season.

While Indiana and highly touted freshman Eric Gordon are tabbed to finish second, the general consensus at the conference was that any of a number of teams could challenge to finish third.

"I think there's a little separation right now on paper," Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said. "I think it could be Indiana and us. It doesn't really matter. I think you could say right now we're both a notch above because of experience. Going three, four, five, I think anybody could be three to eight. That's a hard choice after that."

Perhaps tipping their hats as to where the bulk of the team's leadership could be coming from this season, the Buckeyes were represented by two players: Butler, already the consensus choice to be a team captain, and Lighty, the only freshman from last season not to turn pro.

While Butler is looking forward to returning to his natural point guard position after admitting to being lost all season while playing the shooting guard spot, Matta and the rest of the Buckeyes are counting on a greater offensive output from Lighty.

One season ago, he emerged as the team's designated defensive stopper but shot just .200 from beyond the three-point arc (8 of 40) and averaged 3.7 points per game.

"For me, I have to be more aggressive on the offensive end this year," he said. "Basically, just hit open shots and if I see a scoring opportunity I have to take it. Last year was had like 80 percent of our offense leave, so this year I think I have to express myself as an offensive player as well."

While the Buckeyes might know what to expect from Butler and Lighty, it gets a little dicey from there as a true freshman will have to be on the court at all times. Last season, Ohio State did not have a game where a freshman did not start, but Matta said starting freshmen and trusting them are two different things.

"I've always said that I don't ever count on a freshman until he's done something, scored a point in an Ohio State uniform or whatever," he said. "This year we're going to have to rely on our young guys to be contributors for our team."

Replacing four starters for the second consecutive season will force Matta to deal with stress he does not yet realize, Izzo said.

"It's hard to do that in a year-in and year-out basis," he said. "You spend so much time and energy combating things that you don't even know and dealing with things you don't even know about, from agents to expectations to talk of them leaving and downplaying it and up-playing it and giving them credit yet not pushing them out (or) not holding them back. It's a strain on a coach, and I can appreciate what Thad's gone through."

The next chapter will get underway this Wednesday when the Buckeyes take the court for their first exhibition game in a matchup with Ashland University. That will give fans a first peek at what the team's starting lineup could look like, something Butler said he is not yet sure of either.

The season officially tips off Nov. 12 against Wisconsin-Green Bay, where OSU will begin its quest to defend its back-to-back Big Ten titles. Despite all the uncertainty around the season, Butler said he is ready to see if the team can continue to improve.

"The growth we've made has been great, from my freshman year when we won 20 games but we couldn't play in the post season to my sophomore year winning the Big Ten when we were picked seventh in the Big Ten that year," he said. "Then to go into my junior year and win a Big Ten championship, a Big Ten Tournament championship, Regional champs, Final Four, national championship game, each year is getting better and better."


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