It seems like only yesterday that Ohio State's inexperienced basketball team was racing to the National Championship Game in Atlanta, before being stonewalled against a talented, veteran Florida Gator juggernaut. Now, just six months later, Buckeye head coach Thad Matta is back where he started last October.
Except now, he doesn't have Mike Conley, Greg Oden and Daequan Cook.
OK, so it's true that Oden was simply icing on the cake that didn't satisfy Matta's sweet tooth until mid-December of last season. For all intents and purposes, the 7-1 super center really didn't reach his stride until late in the season. Even then, his defensive prowess was far ahead of his steady, but un-sensational offensive production.
Without the No. 1-pick in the NBA draft Oden, and the new Memphis Grizzly point guard Conley, also taken No. 4 overall, the Buckeyes are back to the drawing board with another group of newcomers – this time totaling six.
Don't be fooled by the surprising preseason prognostication of Ohio State's anticipated third-place conference finish announced this week at the Big Ten Basketball Media Day. It's a new team. It's a new season. And most important of all, it's a new set of circumstances.
With two consecutive Big Ten Titles behind him, and three 20-win seasons in three tries, Matta need not be a miracle worker in 2007-08. For that matter, it may not even take much more than an ounce of luck or good fortune to lead this group into the upper echelon of the conference, a berth into the NCAA Tournament or another 20-win campaign.
But for all the accolades with a roster that has, at least on paper, accomplished virtually nothing at this level, sans senior All-Big Ten point guard Jamar Butler, it's more likely Matta is dreading the lofty expectations privately than the embrace he's given them publicly.
A pessimist may say this year's version of the Buckeye hoops squad will lack the scoring, rebounding and experience to garner much more than a middle-of-the-pack showing in the conference. An NIT bid is a realistic objective for this team, so say the realists, as they like to be called. The optimists or "objective analysts" as they'd prefer to be known as, look at this group of athletes as exciting and fresh. They believe it will mirror the coach in terms of intensity and that sophomore David Lighty will pick-up where he left off in last year's tournament run and become an all-conference performer.
Matta's view on his own team is more likely straight down the middle, and likely a combination of both views, depending on the day you ask.
"At times I think we have started from scratch," Matta said Tuesday, previewing his team's first exhibition against Ashland, "at other times, you see some things that are pretty good."
With the massive loss of three freshmen to the first round of the NBA draft, unlike any typical freshmen though they were, Ohio State must replace 57.1 points per game from last year's 35-4 National runner-up. That includes graduated seniors Ron Lewis and Ivan Harris. By process of elimination, that means this year's team has just 20 points of offense returning.
The good news, however, while there is no Bill Russell clones patrolling the paint defensively the Buckeyes do have a trio of terrific defenders including Butler, Lighty and freshman Evan Turner. Though 7-1 freshman center Kosta Koufos is the antithesis of his predecessor, Buckeye brass hope his offensive skills will somewhat offset the expected differential of points given up because of Oden's absence. Of course, Koufos is not chopped liver when it comes to frontcourt defense.
Here is a preview of the 2007-08 Ohio State personnel in the eyes of Kyle Lamb:
Preliminary expectation of starters:
PG Jamar Butler (6-1 Sr.) – Reportedly,
Butler is, as advertised, much quicker this season. Although he's in a much
different role this season, remember last year he served a big purpose in
usually defending the opposing team's best offensive scorer. His shot will be a
vital asset, but Butler must also be more aggressive this season as the offense
will focus on Butler and the basketball being in his hands.
SG Jon Diebler (6-6 Fr.) - As was necessary for Diebler, he has bulked up and become much stronger. The bigger necessity for him will be how he handles the ball against quicker and better defenders. Diebler has the release and range to be a dangerous shooter, but the key to averaging double-figures in season one will be quickness off the dribble and consistency with his shooting accuracy.
SF David Lighty (6-5 Soph.) - Lighty's intensity and defense are intangibles that the OSU coaching staff hope will carry over and become contagious to the rest of the roster. If Lighty doesn't improve one iota offensively from last season, the aforementioned will still be of the utmost importance. Even a minimal improvement (which is reasonable for a second-year player), will pay immediate dividends for a roster that needs more of a scoring punch.
PF Kosta Koufos (7-1 Fr.) – If not for last season's arrival of Oden, Koufos may have stepped foot on the Ohio State campus as one of the most heralded big man in Buckeye basketball history. Because Ohio State fans naturally will think "what could have been," in hoping Oden would further his game for a second year in an Ohio State uniform, it's overshadowed as to the wide array of talent Koufos possesses. Physically speaking, Koufos's ability to shoot, score inside and out, rebound, block shots and pass will make him easily the most talented player on the team. What's unknown is how he will react to a quicker, more physical game and how Koufos will defend more athletic forwards both within the conference and against tougher competition.
C Othello Hunter (6-9 Sr.) – Expect a much-improved Hunter in the former JUCO transfer's second season in Columbus. Though Hunter reportedly struggled early on in practice after turning heads this summer, he has been regaining confidence entrusted in his coaches for the role he'll play this season. Hunter could develop into a double-digit rebounder as well one of the top shot-blockers in the Big Ten. If Hunter also becomes a double-digit scorer, as he's capable of, the Buckeyes could also be one of the country's better teams.
Other key players:
PG P.J. Hill (6-1 Soph.) – For those still learning about Hill, it's not easy to formulate any sort of vivid expectation. What's known about him is this: he's a spark plug of a point guard that is quick and can handle the ball rather well. What's not yet known about the former McDonald's All-American high school nominee back in his days at Minneapolis, MN (North) is how his reputation for defense will carry over against more physical guards and how much Hill will be ready to contribute offensively after spending a year at Midland Junior College.
SG Evan Turner (6-5 Fr.) – Defense is the name of the game for Turner, who arrived on campus much stronger than ever before. The book on Turner was that the slender guard needed to bulk up and improve his shot. At least 50 percent of those tasks have reportedly been met. The other half will be the difference between 3.0 points per game and 8-10 points per game. If nothing else, Turner is capable of playing 25 minutes per game and playing tough, hard-nosed defense while rebounding well for his size and position.
SF Eric Wallace (6-6 Fr.) – Wallace has yet to make his acquaintance with Ohio State basketball fans after spending a season at Hargrave Military Academy, but don't worry, soon after he introduces himself in person with a Schottenstein Center backboard, you'll know who he is. The high-flying Wallace might not be developed enough to score even in moderation this season as a freshman, but his superior athleticism and brute physicality will likely find him minutes immediately. Wallace is a long-distance jumper away from being a possible future NBA draftee, but before he can even remotely think about the pros, he's first got to master the college game. Most likely, Wallace is a year or two away from being a consistent contributor, but his athletic ability gives him an advantage over the competition if he can capitalize.
PF Matt Terwilliger (6-9 Sr.) – It's time for Terwilliger to shine, or at least, so hopes Ohio State. "Twig," as his teammates and fans alike call him, had the benefit playing half a season against Oden every day in practice. If that learned toughness doesn't carry over, nothing else would. Matta stated this week that Terwilliger has improved and is finishing around the basket much better. However, the saying goes that a leopard doesn't change its spots and Terwilliger likely won't be dramatically different in his final season at Ohio State. What he has to be, however, is a consistent rebounder, versatile big man and a guy that can provide valuable minutes and avoid foul difficulty as the "veteran" of the frontcourt.
C Kyle Madsen (6-9 Soph.) – After a season playing against Oden in practice, much like Terwilliger, Madsen must be tougher inside. Madsen's skills are mostly perimeter-oriented after transferring from Vanderbilt a year ago, but his size must translate into strength and toughness. Madsen can shoot out to 18-feet with relative consistency, but defensive positioning, rebounding and finishing down low all reportedly leave some to be desired.
C Dallas Lauderdale (6-9 Fr.) – Unlike Terwilliger and Madsen, strength, positioning and physicality are not things that the freshman from Solon, Ohio is lacking. That being said, Lauderdale arrives at Ohio State miles away from reaching his full potential. With a wingspan of well over 7-feet, Lauderdale could team with Hunter to be a formidable shot-blocking duo. However, Lauderdale is also far from a polished defensive product as his footwork needs improvement and he's prone to cheap fouls accordingly. On offense, Lauderdale does not become big without the ball often enough and added range could benefit his skill set on the blocks.