No. 4 Buckeyes have blend of freshmen, veterans
COLUMBUS, Ohio After a few years fighting a prematurely fading hairline, Ohio State power forward Dallas Lauderdale finally gave in and just shaved off what little remained.
“It made me a little quicker,” he cracked.
Heading into a senior season of high expectations and high promise, the Buckeyes’ big man will need every edge he can get.
Coming off a 29-8 season in which they shared the Big Ten’s regular-season title then won the conference tournament championship before advancing to the NCAA’s round of 16, the Buckeyes have just about everything they need for Lauderdale and his shaven pate to be playing even later in March.
Four starters are back, buttressed by what some experts called the best recruiting class in the nation, No. 4 Ohio State has all the pieces—it just needs 20-wins-a-year coach Thad Matta to fit them all together.
It’s remarkable that the Buckeyes could lose the consensus national Player of the Year, Evan Turner, who left after his junior season to go No. 2 in the NBA draft to the Philadelphia Sixers, and still be a powerhouse. That is attributable to the persuasive powers of Matta, who is a sparkling 258-85—that’s an average record of 26-9—over his 10 years.
“I probably learned a great lesson many years ago because I had the Player of the Year at Xavier in David West,” Matta said. “The following year, we struggled at times because I think everybody thought, ‘Hey, I’ll just be David.’ ”
Matta doesn’t see that happening this time around, however.
“These guys have a very good understanding of how good Evan was and what Evan’s strengths and weaknesses were,” he said. “That was a tribute to how close that team was.”
This time Matta will try to mesh six standout freshmen with four starters who it seems have been with the program for all of the coach’s seven years in Columbus.
The returnees include Lauderdale, a 6-foot-8 physical force on defense and the boards, 3-point specialist Jon Diebler, do-everything swingman David Lighty and the team’s next big-time player, William Buford. Buford averaged 14.4 points a game last season, Diebler 13.0, Lighty 12.6 and Lauderdale 6.5 points and 5.2 rebounds.
“We’re very excited about who we have coming back and who we have coming in,” Diebler said. “With the six new guys who are going to be able to play, they’re very talented and they’ve been working really hard this summer.”
Jared Sullinger, the Naismith Award winner as the top high school player in the land last season, received preseason All-America votes in the Associated Press balloting. The surprisingly nimble 6-9 forward won Ohio’s Mr. Basketball award the past two years, following current teammates Buford and Diebler. (The last two players before Sullinger to win the award multiple times? Current NBA stars LeBron James and O.J. Mayo.)
Aaron Craft, a former standout quarterback in high school, is perhaps the only true point guard on the roster. DeShaun Thomas is a sweet-shooting lefty who finished as one of the highest scoring schoolboys ever in Indiana. Slasher Jordan Sibert, guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. (sidelined with an injury for at least another month) and Sullinger’s Columbus Northland High School teammate J.D. Weatherspoon round out the class.
The biggest question for the Buckeyes is who’ll play the point. A year ago, Turner shifted from shooting forward to running the show and had a terrific season, averaging 20.4 points, 9.2 rebounds and 6 assists a game despite missing six games after breaking bones in his back from a fall on a dunk attempt.
Asked who’ll handle the ball out front, Buford smiled and said, “I’m not sure. I’m really not. I’m really being honest.”
The bonus for the Buckeyes is that any number of people can handle the ball and share the load: Diebler, Lighty and Buford, among others.
Having to replace a top player is really nothing new for the Buckeyes. Over the past four drafts, Ohio State has lost six standout freshmen—and all went in the first round. In 2007, it was Greg Oden, Mike Conley and Daequan Cook. In 2008, it was Kosta Koufos; a year later, substitute center B.J. Mullens; and then last year, it was Turner.
Through it all, Ohio State has continued to stockpile talent and wins.
Blending veterans and rookies is nothing new.
“It’s like I told the six new guys when they got here in June. I said, ‘This program has over the course of the last six seasons accomplished a great deal—and you haven’t had one thing to do with it,’ ” Matta said. “ ‘You need to make sure you have great respect and humility. The guys we are returning, sitting in the room, will tell you there’s an honor to uphold here. We do it a certain way.’ ”