TEAM OUTLOOK Aaron Craft wasn't projected to be a key performer coming out of high school, but the feisty junior is now the catalyst of Thad Matta's ninth Ohio State team, especially with the departures of Jared Sullinger and William Buford. Craft can't replace their production, but he's proved himself to be perhaps the best on-ball defender in the country and knows how to get the ball to the right spots on offense. The Buckeyes once again are young but believe in their heady on-court leader. That's important, because Matta will have to reshape his team after not employing a particularly deep rotation last season.
BREAKING DOWN THE STARTING FIVE Sullinger's reliability in the paint will be greatly missed as the Buckeyes no longer have a go-to player in the post or a top-notch defensive rebounder. However, power forward Deshaun Thomas is a matchup headache who is ready to explode this season. Thomas displayed his takeover ability sporadically last season and during the Buckeyes' NCAA tournament run. It's not out of the question for him to average 20 points per game this season. Amir Williams was too raw to provide regular help last season, but he's made enough strides for the coaches to believe he can take over at center. That would be ideal and allow functional big man Evan Ravenel to sub in at the 4 and 5 spots as needed. The top small forward could be LaQuinton Ross, a smooth outside shooter with good length and notable ball skills -- although he has to display defensive improvement.
In the backcourt it's all Craft, all the time. Craft will receive help from Shannon Scott, who struggled with his shooting as a freshman. Lenzelle Smith Jr., who was heroic in OSU's Final Four-clinching win over Syracuse, continues to develop. The coaching staff also hopes to benefit from firepower off the bench from freshman Amedeo Della Valle, an Italian sharpshooter. The Buckeyes need to be better from three-point range without a proven scorer in the paint.
NEWCOMERS Amedeo Della Valle flirted with offers from the likes of Arizona and Michigan before being wowed on his spring visit to Ohio State. He was a flashy distributor and long-range bomber at Findlay (Nev.) Prep but will need to show consistency and maturity to land an immediate spot in the rotation.
FINAL ANALYSIS Matta wasn't able to secure an immediate replacement for Sullinger and is back to operating with a limited roster and just one senior. However, OSU has a horse to ride in Thomas and one of the best leaders and defenders in the nation in Craft. The Buckeyes are a high-effort, athletic outfit, which means they should defend well yet again. But how far they go will depend upon the ability of young players to properly fill in the cracks.
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