Three Big Things: Ohio State

In the buildup to Midnight Madness, Insider and our college hoops team are collaborating on a preview of one high-profile college hoops team per day -- based on Joe Lunardi’s top 20 teams in his offseason Bracketology. We're calling it "Countdown To Madness." I'll be tracing three key things you should know about each team we preview. We're calling that "Three Big Things." (Hey, that's snappy!) Today: Ohio State.

1. Unlike Tuesday’s "Three Big Things" subject, the Ohio State Buckeyes are a team in transition. For the past two years, this program has essentially belonged to forward Jared Sullinger, who dominated as a freshman, returned to lead his team to a Final Four as a sophomore, and was an All-American caliber player both seasons. The departure of senior William Buford, despite struggles in his final season, ends another career. It was one less glorious than Sullinger’s but marked by a quiet, even underrated, all-around quality.

Between those two, and the 2011 losses of shapshooter Jon Diebler and glue guy all-timer David Lighty, the 2012–13 season begins at something like the end of an era for Ohio State basketball. The question is what comes next?

With the exception of Aaron Craft and Deshaun Thomas the answer is, as usual with Ohio State coach Thad Matta, another wave of highly regarded talent. But the Buckeyes aren’t adding notable recruits in the class of 2012. Instead, they’ll be relying on the loaded class of 2011 -- most of which were role players last season -- to emerge in place of the (relatively) old guard.

That includes guard Shannon Scott, who will be featured in the backcourt much more frequently this season. It also includes junior Lenzelle Smith, who was an occasionally sporadic but usually efficient two-guard in 2011–12, and sophomore LaQuinton Ross, who had plenty of hype coming out of high school. Sophomore small forward Sam Thompson is crazy athletic, and has the potential to be one of the best above-the-rim finishers in college hoops. And rarely used center Amir Williams -- which forced Sullinger to play center more than he probably would have preferred -- arrived in Columbus with a good deal of hype last season, and will need to make good on it this season to give the Buckeyes a viable low-post presence.

There are a lot of question marks here, which is why it’s fair to expect Ohio State to take a step back in the coming season. After all, Sullingers don’t grow on trees, and they can’t stay out of the NBA draft forever. A “step back” is what happens when you lose a borderline transcendent two-year centerpiece. Until we see the young guys step into a tough Big Ten landscape, ambivalence about this team’s chances is entirely fair to have.

2. But as Heath Ledger’s Joker once croaked, you’ve got to have an ace in the hole. Matta has two – one for either side of the floor.

The offensive ace is, obviously, Thomas. As a freshman, Thomas was one of the nation’s most ready shooters; he didn’t get many minutes, but when he did, he made sure to get his shots. Last season, Thomas was a regular, and he was excellent, posting a 122.1 offensive rating and a 57.4 effective field goal percentage while committing very few turnovers and rebounding nearly 10 percent of opponents’ available misses.

But behind Sullinger and Buford, Thomas was still the 2011–12 Buckeyes’ second, or even third, option. This season, there are no questions about who Ohio State’s No. 1 offensive option will be. Will that hurt his productivity? Will defenses be able to key on him, and him alone? (One reason that may not work is because Thomas is so versatile; he appears just as comfortable facing up from 20 feet as he does pivoting on the low block.)

One thing’s for sure: Thomas is going to get his points. Whether he does so efficiently, or with volume, will have a lot to do with the lethality of his newly crucial teammates. But there will be no conscience at work here. Whatever the end result, it’s going to be thrilling to see Thomas -- a born scorer if ever there was one -- fully unleashed.

3. In the meantime, point guard Craft will still be Craft, which is to say he’ll be the best perimeter defender in the game, hands down. SI’s Luke Winn spent the entire 2011–12 season tracking (among many other things, obviously) Craft’s impact on the defensive end. What he found was a player who actively creates more opposition turnovers -- steals, charges taken, moving screens drawn, and good old-fashioned uncredited turnovers.

It’s easy for players like Craft, who are almost ritually slapped with the “gritty” label early and often in their careers, to become victims of analyst-driven mythology. But what Luke’s close watch revealed only buttressed the reality we all were already seeing (if not accurately quantifying): Craft was the most impactful perimeter defender in the game. Everything he does -- the steals, the charges drawn, the screens relentlessly fought through, the hips subtly bumped (so as to knock opponents off balance but avoid fouls), all of the little tips and tricks -- added up to an absolute nightmare for opposing scorers.

Craft will need to be his nightmarish self again for the Buckeyes in 2012–13, and he almost certainly will. Perhaps more interesting to track will be his offensive progress, an already arguably overlooked portion of his game. Craft posted a solid 111.4 offensive rating in 2012–13. He made 23 of his 64 3-point field goal attempts (good for 35.9 percent). He got to the line at a surprisingly high rate.

But he still coughed the ball up too often (23.8 percent turnover percentage), and really, Craft wasn’t asked to do much on the offensive end in the first place. With the non-Thomas portions of this attack in flux, Matta may have to ask Craft to do more -- to shoot more frequently and more accurately, to collapse defenses when he can -- in order to give the Buckeyes some added punch.

In all, Ohio State has two sure things in Craft and Thomas, a nice role player in Smith, and a bunch of talented question marks surrounding them. This isn’t the rosy prospectus of the past two seasons. Sully isn’t walking through that door. But those sure things are so sure that just about any coach in the country would absolutely love to have them. We’ll see if that can be enough.