Men's Cagers Ready To Start Anew

Once again, the Ohio State men's basketball team will take to the court to begin a season with a number of new faces. This year's team has eight of them, but the Buckeyes are confident the 2008-09 season could be one to remember -- at least, according to Dallas Lauderdale.

As the 2008-09 Ohio State men's basketball team took to the floor for media day, it did so with a certain level of expectation.

Last year, the Buckeyes captured the postseason NIT crown and finished the year as one of the hottest teams in college basketball. Although they now are tasked with replacing their top three scorers from last season, the Buckeyes are being picked by most analysts as a team that should finish in the top third of the Big Ten and make a return to the NCAA Tournament.

Despite the questions about the team's overall talent capabilities, sophomore power forward Dallas Lauderdale had no hesitation when asked how this year's team could be.

"I say I don't see us losing this year," he said. "That's a very bold statement, I know, but I really don't see us losing this year.

"I think it's very realistic. I'm just that confident. It's not cockiness, it's just being bold. I think we're that good. If we come in every game mentally prepared to go hard, I really don't see us losing this year."

A bold statement indeed, especially for a team that returns just three players who saw significant playing time a year ago. Two seasons ago, an OSU team fronted by the likes of Greg Oden, Mike Conley and Daequan Cook was unable to run the tables and finished 35-4 overall, earning national runner-up honors.

This year, OSU welcomes in eight new faces, one of which is not eligible to play this season after transferring into the program from the University of Alabama-Birmingham in Zisis Sarikopoulos. And although official team practices do not start until Friday, head coach Thad Matta is starting to get a handle on what this team might look like.

Hint: It might be a faster team than the one OSU fans watched last season.

"I think that there are a lot of new guys, a lot of young guys, a lack of experience," he said. "I told a group of freshmen the other day, ‘I don't have a drill or there's not a segment of practice we can dedicate to getting you experience. You're going to have to go through the wars.' "

The biggest challenge Matta said he has right now is getting his team prepared to play at the college level. It is a situation the head coach, now in his fifth season in Columbus, has grown quite familiar with.

During the 2006-07 season, the likes of Oden, Conley and Cook – as well as David Lighty and Othello Hunter – dominated the team's roster. When the trio of underclassmen left after one year, Matta was left with a 2007-08 roster that boasted just four scholarship players returning.

Matta said that he likes this year's team and added that he has learned lessons from the situations he has found himself in the last two years that can be applied to this season's squad.

"I've gone through old practice plans in the offseason trying to draw similarities and correlations and what I would change," he said. "I've got a basic core of what we're always trying to accomplish, but I think that we're going to have to change some things with so many new guys … (and) a lack of experience back."

Through each of the past three seasons, though, Matta has welcomed in a highly ranked recruiting class. This year's group is headlined by center B.J. Mullens, a player Matta said is the biggest center he has had at OSU.

Listed at 7-0, 275 pounds, Matta said he's about an inch taller than Oden was but added that Mullens is down to 264 pounds.

"It's going to be very interesting to see how he can adapt mentally to the physicality and the pace of college basketball," Matta said. "It is going to be different for him … he's listening to everything that we're saying and you can see that he wants to be a really good player."

Mullens' attributes and Lauderdale's proclamations aside, there are plenty of questions that will be addressed as the Buckeyes prepare for their first game of the season. On the ball, OSU will be looking to replace last year's captain and basically sole ball-handler in Jamar Butler and will rotate players through that position. Away from the ball, the Buckeyes will need to do a better job of rebounding than they did a year ago. Then, of course, is the ever-present task of getting the team's freshmen to stop playing like freshmen as quickly as possible.

Matta had a few answers – look for a rotation at point guard as the season progresses, look for the big men to be more active near the boards and look for the team to play more of an up-tempo game from top to bottom, for starters – but until the games start, it's all just speculation.

Speculation Lauderdale is only too happy to take part in.

"I study the schedule every night," he said. "I really think the only team that can beat us this year is Ohio State."

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