When Thad Matta finally has time to take a vacation, probably sometime in May, he'll get a chance to reflect on what went right or wrong during the 2007-08 basketball season. What he will see in total probably looks similar to the expectations prior to the start of practice in October.
But looks, however, can often be deceiving.
Sure, Ohio State's overall record (24-13) might not be far removed from the mark prognosticators anticipated for the remotely inexperienced team. And the Buckeyes' 10-8 fifth-place finish in the Big Ten doesn't greatly differ from the projected third or fourth-place expectation of the pundits.
In reality it was a tale of two seasons rolled up into one. There was the first mini-campaign that spanned over 25 games and included an embarrassing exhibition loss to Division II in-state Findlay, defeats on the road against Michigan and Iowa as well as a four-game losing streak down the home stretch of the regular season, which ultimately was enough to send Ohio State into the N.I.T. And then there was also much behind-the-scenes turmoil resulting from frustration and mounting losses.
Then borne from that turmoil and out of desperation grew a second variation. A team that blossomed into a balanced, hungry group eager to prove they belonged in the NCAA Tournament. Winning seven of their last eight games, including the school's second N.I.T. Championship and the final two home games against ranked Purdue and Michigan State, the young Buckeyes along with seniors Jamar Butler, Othello Hunter and Matt Terwilliger gave Matta just enough to chew on in anticipation of next season.
First, Matta is hoping 7-1 freshman Kosta Koufos spurns offers from his family's native Greece to play professionally, as well as a possible entry into the NBA draft, where he would likely be a first-round pick. Instead, the Canton, Ohio native could return next season as a sophomore and earn first-team All-Big Ten, All-American and possibly develop into a lottery selection in the 2009 NBA draft.
Last season, around this same time, Matta allowed himself to glance forward to a possible National Championship caliber team with a backcourt of Butler, Michael Conley Jr., Daequan Cook, David Lighty and Evan Turner as well as an intimidating frontline that included Hunter, Greg Oden and Koufos. It was a nice way of forgetting the disappointing loss to Florida in the championship game.
"If things go the way I hope they go, (the fans) are going to have one helluva basketball team next year," Matta said at the 2006-07 basketball celebration, almost pleading for Conley, Cook and Oden to return one more season.
It didn't happen. All three entered their names in the NBA draft, with Oden hiring an agent and Conley and Cook eventually following suit.
In his eighth season as a head coach, Matta missed out on the NCAA Tournament for the first time with an eligible team. Though he did once again pick up at least 20 victories, nearly a fifth of those wins came in the N.I.T. after missing out on the big dance.
As he gazes back on the year that was, now he has visions of 7-footers dancing through his head – again.
This time, he's hoping Koufos returns to start alongside 7-foot incoming McDonald's All-American center, B.J. Mullens. Mullens is the No. 4-rated player in American by ScoutHoops.com and would give the Buckeyes the frontcourt he missed out on this season for next year.
With recruiting still ongoing for a few possible additions to next year's roster, let's take a look back at the 2007-08 season before the ink is dry on all the stats and schedules, and analyze what went right and what went wrong.
Jamar Butler (6-1 Sr.) – It looked midseason like Butler had lost his legs (and his shot). Carrying the young Buckeyes through the preseason NIT and much of the non-conference schedule, Butler went cold and as the losses continued to mount, the senior grew distant from the rest of the team. However, a team meeting called by Butler before the final two home games following a four-game losing streak rejuvenated the confidence in trust in both he and the rest of his teammates, inspiring an eight-game stretch that was the best of his entire career. Butler led the Big Ten in assists at 5.9 per game while scoring 15.0 points per game and shooting 43 percent (and 94 percent from the free throw line).
Strengths: shooting, finishing in the open floor, free throws, body control and improved quickness
Weaknesses: inconsistency, occasional lazy passes, not taking advantage of penetration opportunities in turning the corner off high ball-screens
P.J. Hill (6-1 Soph.) – A late JUCO transfer that came aboard this summer, following Conley's sudden departure to the NBA after just one season, Hill was a spark-plug point guard signed to alleviate some minutes from Butler and provide steady ball-handling and defense. Though Hill played sparingly, even late in the season, he did show a few flashes and played just well enough to sacrifice precious minutes that Butler rested. Hill had a 1:1 assist to turnover ratio and shot just 3-of-13 from 3-point range.
Strengths: energy, pesky defense and a pretty quick first step off the dribble
Weaknesses: uncomfortable with his outside shot and ineffective in doing so as well as a shaky handle under pressure
Jon Diebler (6-5 Fr.) – Despite not being a McDonald's All-American or top-50 recruit, when you're the all-time Ohio leading scorer in high school, you've got some lofty credentials and super-high expectations. His ill-conceived reputation of being a dead-eye shooter led to some of the unfair expectations, but it was more of a lack of confidence rather than lack of talent and potential that led to his disappointing 48-of-166 (28.9 percent) shooting from outside the arc. Here's the good news: Butler shot 23 percent from 3-point range as a freshman and wound up an All-Big Ten guard his sophomore year. Expect a much more confident (and more efficient) Diebler in 2008-09.
Strengths: Quick release, shooter's mentality, good court awareness, solid fundamentals and good rebounder for size
Weaknesses: strength, ball-handling, lateral quickness and the occasional lapse on defense against quicker guards
Evan Turner (6-6 Fr.) – There were times this season that Turner was perhaps the lone bright spot – the main source of excitement. The talented freshman struggled through the ordinary rookie inconsistency, on top of a developing perimeter jumper, but when the Buckeyes needed someone to take control with dribble penetration, it was usually the Chicago product that delivered. Turner finished with 8.5 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game while shooting 47 percent from the floor – 57 percent effective field goal percentage, which accounts for an extra point for every 3-point field goal. The downside for Turner was his ball-handling woes, totaling 99 turnovers this season including eight in the NIT Championship against Massachusetts.
Strengths: strong in getting to the basket, good defender with a low center of gravity and long arms to defend, great passer and a terrific rebounding guard
Weaknesses: only makes 3-pointers in bunches, still learning when to accept mid-range jumpers, sometimes plays too fast and still working to improve his handle
David Lighty (6-5 Soph.) – Though Lighty didn't completely parlay his strong March performance as a freshman to a breakout sophomore season, over the last month of the year Lighty showed more than just glimpses of his probable future. Lighty's always provided an energetic, play-making spark to Ohio State but in recent weeks, Lighty became a stable offensive threat from consistent long-range and mid-range jumpers as well as savvy passing ability. Nearly a mirror image to Turner on the stat sheet, Lighty finished the season at 9.0 points per game, 3.6 rebounds and 2.4 assists. He raised his field goal percentage to 45 percent and finished with 48 steals. The downside: occasional turnovers (2.2 per game, although he averaged just 1.5 over the last 10 games) and free throw shooting (62 percent).
Strengths: improved outside shot, consistent 15-foot jumpers from the elbow, better body control, strong defender both on and off the ball and began hitting clutch shots down the stretch
Weaknesses: still learning to play with what Matta has called a controlled chaos, occasional unforced mistakes and still barely scratching the surface of his potential
Kosta Koufos (7-1 Fr.) – Early in the season, frustrated by a perceived misuse of his talents, Koufos quickly transformed from a blistering start to a cold, lackluster series of performances. The 7-footer, uncomfortable with his back to the basket, forced shots (making very few), created several turnovers and grew a reputation for being a black hole when an entry pass was made his direction. But as the Buckeyes heated up so did Koufos. The big man flourished on the perimeter making perimeter and baseline jumpers, became more efficient with his passing and shot selection and rebounded with far more passion. His smile, which had been missing for much of the season, returned both on the court and on the bench. He finished with 14.4 points, 6.7 rebounds and shot 50.8 percent from the field.
Strengths: deadly baseline jumper, strong on the right block, become a shot-blocking presence late in the year and showed much more confidence in his 3-point shot as the season went on
Weaknesses: very weak left hand and turning to his left, still could be psychologically stronger and remains a defensive liability on the baseline in the 2-3 and 3-2 zone
Othello Hunter (6-9 Sr.) – There have been some nights where it's unfathomable this impressive, rangy athlete has played just five seasons of organized basketball in his lifetime. And then there are others, when he's seemingly disappeared, where it's a reminder he's still a lot to learn. Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, his learning curve at the collegiate level has come to the point of expiration after just two seasons of eligibility. However, his athletic ability, coupled with some range and untapped skills give him a fair shot at perhaps enjoying a future NBA career as a journeyman forward. Hunter (9.9 PPG, 6.5 RPG) shot just shy of 60 percent from the field this season and was a defensive presence, averaging 1.5 blocks per game. Despite flashes of brilliance, he seemed always just shy of becoming a consistent force in the paint.
Strengths: inconsistent but capable shooting range, good offensive rebounder, quick off his feet and fearless competitor
Weaknesses: still becoming comfortable with putting the ball on the floor, sometimes undisciplined in going for the big block and was up and down in showing ability to defend on the perimeter
Matt Terwilliger (6-9 Sr.) – In terms of being accepting and willing of morphing into a certain role, is perhaps the prime example of what you should expect from a moderate four-year player. Though Terwilliger perhaps never lived up to the expectations for a relatively athletic post player, he improved his shot and his ball-handling, and become happy to execute the little things late in his career: boxing out, setting terrific screens, making the extra pass, etc. Sure, there were times his interior defense, losing track of an offensive player on the glass and lack of consistency was enough for OSU fans to pull their hair out, but Terwilliger was a model of effort and improvement in four years and that along with his occasional highlight reel dunk made him an enviable contributor.
Strengths: became a terrific screening option with improved shooting range, very aggressive going for loose balls and offensive rebounds and his athletic abilities allowed him to extend his defense out on the perimeter
Weaknesses: strength in the paint was a big issue throughout his career as well as overall awareness and had limitations with the ball and posting-up
Dallas Lauderdale (6-9 Fr.) – Once having high expectations given to him by fans and recruiting experts alike, Lauderdale's production the past year had gone down, giving folks doubts as to whether he'd ever meet or exceed his lofty potential and athletic talent. However, recent flashes down the stretch have alleviated those doubts, and instead, replaced them with the question: "when" not "if." Late in the year, Lauderdale became a threat defensively, moving his feet and blocking shots. He was an authoritative rebounder with the strength and body of an NBA veteran. In just under seven minutes per game, Lauderdale averaged two rebounds – given a normal amount of minutes, would translate into eight or more per game.
Strengths: a 7-4 wingspan spells trouble for an instinctive shot-blocker; good rebounder, strength, hard to move off the blocks both on offense and defense and looks to dunk everything he can get
Weaknesses: unable to avoid foul trouble, has very hard hands creating problems catching passes and dribbling, must work on his shot outside of five feet and must stay in shape and stay focused
Stay tuned for team grades and complete team analysis