COLUMBUS, Ohio -- This is what "madness" looks like to Thad Matta. When the clock inside the practice gym at the Schottenstein Center struck 5 p.m. last Friday afternoon, Matta walked through a door with his assistants, strode onto the court, and asked his players to gather around him. "It's only us," he said quietly. "There's nobody else in this building. We're the only guys who can impact what happens." Matta said a few more words, the players clapped for a few seconds, the huddle broke. And Ohio State's first practice of the 2012-13 season got underway.
The cynic in me wondered if Matta decided not to stage a midnight madness because he was afraid that nobody would show up, this being a football school and all. After the two-and-a-half-hour workout was over, however, Matta told me that he started practice the exact same way at his previous schools, Butler and Xavier, where hoops reigns supreme. "I've never done a midnight madness, but we always practiced the first day at midnight," he said. "I'm a low-frills kind of guy."
As long as Matta's teams keep bringing the noise in March, nobody will begrudge him a quiet October. Success has become so routine in this program that it's easy to forget that before Matta arrived, Ohio State had won just two NCAA tournament games in the previous five years. In the eight seasons since then, Matta has guided the Buckeyes to two Final Fours, three consecutive Big Ten regular season titles, and a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament in five out of the last seven years. Even more remarkable is the fact that Matta has done so while losing seven non-seniors to the NBA -- including 6-foot-8 power forward Jared Sullinger, who left last spring following his sophomore year.
Besides Sullinger, the Buckeyes also lost senior forward Will Buford, who graduated as Ohio State's third all-time leading scorer, plus two sophomores who transferred. Matta also had an uncharacteristically subpar recruiting year, landing just one under-the-radar freshman. You'd think that would augur a rebuilding season, but when the preseason coaches poll was released yesterday, Ohio State was ranked fourth. When a program's foundation is this good, it just keeps on building.
To be sure, the talent here is not overpowering. I wasn't overwhelmed by what I saw during the first practice, but I wasn't underwhelmed, either. I guess you could say I was whelmed. But since almost every top team in the country lost more than it brought in, it won't take an overwhelming effort to advance deep into March.
The Buckeyes' top two assets, of course, are the standout juniors, 6-foot-2 point guard Aaron Craft and 6-7 forward Deshaun Thomas. Craft is one of the best perimeter defenders this sport has seen over the last decade -- he set a school single-season steals record last season and was named the Big Ten's defensive player of the year -- while Thomas was arguably the Buckeyes' best player the second half of the season. (He averaged 19.2 points and 7.6 rebounds in the NCAA tournament.) Having two of the top 15 players in college basketball is a pretty good place to start. The challenge for Craft and Thomas will be in repeating their success without the benefit of Sullinger to draw all that attention from opposing defenses. "When Jared was here, I was a role player," Thomas told me after practice. "Everything was put on him. Now it's on me and Aaron."
Alas, I did not notice a huge improvement in Thomas's game during practice. He could still have an All-America-type season, but I sure would like to see him develop more of a long-range shot. (When I mentioned that to Thomas, he smiled and said, "I've been hearing that my whole life.") Thomas did make the second-most threes on the team last season next to Buford, but as a whole the Buckeyes ranked last in the Big Ten in made threes per game. Without the big fella ruling the post, the entire team will need to improve in that category.
Craft certainly has. When last season ended, Matta told Craft the team would need him to score more in his junior season. Craft only took about six shots a game as a sophomore, but he showed with his 17-point performance in the third-round win over Gonzaga that he has the ability to put up some points. His main task this off-season was to fix his awkward shooting form, which was accentuated by a hitch that threw him off-balance. So Craft spent the off-season breaking down his shot and putting it back together again, beginning by lofting shots in the lane and then working his way past the three-point line. Aside from a two-week hiatus when he was recovering from surgery to remove bone spurs from an ankle, Craft pursued his goal the way he pursues everything -- with diligence, persistence, and intelligence.
In fact, when it comes to shooting, Craft might be too intelligent for his own good. He is a premed major who gets straight A's and plans on becoming a surgeon or pathologist someday. On defense, Craft relies on his instincts, but when he has the ball in his hands he often suffers from paralysis by analysis. "I tend to overthink things at the offensive end. A lot of my shooting problems are in my head," he told me. "I'm working on just believing in myself and letting it go. Take a bad shot every once in a while. See how it feels."
I noticed during practice that Craft still has a trace of a hitch, but that ball sure went in a lot. He also excelled at driving and finishing around the basket. Matta told me that even he has been surprised by Craft's aggressiveness on offense. Craft doesn't have to go Jimmer on anyone this season, but if he keeps hunting for his shot the way he did last Friday, the Buckeyes will be tough to beat.
The main thing this team lacks is height. Only one player, 6-11 sophomore Amir Williams, is taller than 6-8. On the flip side, the roster is teeming with agile, quick, long-armed wings. Their versatility will give Matta plenty of combinations to exploit matchups as well as overcome injuries and foul trouble. Matta has developed a reputation for playing a short bench, but he told me that was rooted more in circumstance than philosophy. "Everybody started on that [depth question] a couple of years ago. I had seniors who had played a ton of minutes and we had a bunch of new guys," Matta said. "I think we're going to be able to run nine or ten guys this season. I really do."
The Buckeyes will be smaller, quicker and deeper than they've been the last two years. They may not have a surefire pro on their roster, but they have a lot of nice pieces that fit well together. So if we're looking for a mantra, we should take our cue from the head coach:
No frills? No problem.
Herewith, my breakdown of the Ohio State Buckeyes:
Williams is a sturdy 6-11, 220 pounds, but in the past his presence has not been felt. He was too raw and out of shape to get a lot of playing time as a freshman. He averaged just 6.6 minutes and shot 35.7 percent from the foul line. He has to at least provide rebounding and shotblocking on defense. (Sullinger's rebounding will be missed far more than his scoring.) The good news is, Williams' conditioning is light years ahead of where it was this time last year. His offensive moves remain awkward, but he had a couple of nice moments in practice where he sealed his man, established a proper angle, caught the ball and powered it home. Points from him would be gravy, but gravy sure tastes good.
Incidentally, the runner-up for this category is LaQuinton Ross, a 6-8 sophomore from Jackson, Miss. Ross was a highly-touted recruit, but as a freshman he was academically ineligible during the first semester, and by the time he joined the squad he was hopelessly behind. Ross is a little too laid back for my taste, but I came away from practice thinking he has the most long-term pro potential of anyone on this roster. Ross is smooth and athletic, and he has a real pretty stroke for a guy his size. If the proverbial light ever goes on for him, he's gonna shine mighty bright.
But what really makes Thompson a glue guy is his defensive versatility. He can literally guard all five positions, although he is most effective on the wing. A lineup of Craft, Lenzelle Smith and Thompson would comprise the best perimeter defensive trio in America. Since the Buckeyes probably won't be as good offensively in the halfcourt without Sullinger, they'll need to create offense off their defense. Thompson will help them do that.
Della Valle will get some run and have a few good moments this season, but he has two things working against him. First, he's not going to scare anyone defensively. And second, there are too many experienced wings in front of him. He'll be a good player at Ohio State, but he's going to have to wait his turn.