Posted: 7:15 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013
By Sam Vecenie
For the first time in Thad Matta's Ohio State career, he returns a largely upperclass squad as the Buckeyes look to kick off their season at Value City Arena against the Morgan State Bears. Can this squad kick off the season with a big win in order to set the tone for its season, or will they stumble out of the gates?
Deshaun Thomas needs to be replaced at forward, but that's the only major piece that the Buckeyes are missing from last season's near-Final Four miss. Aaron Craft is expected to continue his leadership role from last season, as well as hopefully grow as an offensive player. Last season, Craft averaged 10 points on 42% shooting while also contributing 4.6 assists, 3.6 rebounds, and 2.1 steals per game. For Ohio State to compete, Craft will need to take on a larger role offensively either as a stronger facilitator (only 6th last season in the Big Ten in AST% despite finishing 2nd in APG) or as a more efficient scorer/shooter.
As far as replacing Thomas positionally, look for LaQuinton Ross to step into his shoes as the lead scoring forward. Ross stepped up in the NCAA Tournament, scoring 17.7 points over the Buckeyes' final three games after only scoring that many points once during the regular season. Ross making the leap from secondary scorer to lead offensive option – as Thomas did last season – is the biggest question mark heading into the season.
Despite all of this talk of offense, ultimately the Buckeyes will hang their hats on their defense. Craft and Shannon Scott could combine to be the most devastating defensive backcourt in the country this season with their activity and fast hands on that end. Sam Thompson and Lenzelle Smith are excellent at utilizing their length in order to shut down wing scorers. On the interior, Amir Williams will be counted on to use his size to protect the rim, as he's really the only option the Buckeyes have down there. Last season, Ohio State held teams under 40% shooting from the field and were ninth the country in defensive efficiency at 84.8 points per 100 possessions. I expect that number to be even stronger this season, and they could potentially be the best defensive team in the country.
After a 10-6 conference record, Morgan State went to the MEAC Conference Tournament Finals before losing to the crunkest gym in America, North Carolina A&T. The Bears return most of last season's team, including their leading scorer Justin Black, a huge slashing guard at 230 pounds that averaged 14.2 points and three assists per game. However, they lost their best player from last year, forward DeWayne Jackson, a do-it-all forward that could defend multiple positions and score both in the paint and from beyond the arc.
Even more than their talent, the most interesting part of Morgan State is their coach, Todd Bozeman. The former California Bears coach was the youngest coach to ever reach the Sweet Sixteen in 1993 before forced out of the job after paying a player and being accused of sexual harassment. He became the victim of a show-cause penalty for eight years, which ran out in 2005. He became the first coach in NCAA history to ever return after receiving a show-cause penalty. After coming to the Bears in 2006, the program has been undoubtedly the most successful MEAC program over that period, finishing worse than 5th just once, winning three conference titles, and appearing in two NCAA Tournaments. He's still been controversial – in 2012 he punched a player – but his success as a coach is undeniable.
Ohio State's Big Ten-leading turnover margin last season. Given the question marks surrounding how the Buckeyes are going to get points this season, getting extra possessions minimizing turnovers on offense is going to be essential.
Ohio State's points-per-possession last season compared to Morgan State's. For all of the discussion about the inefficiencies of Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft offensively last season, the 1.09 mark was still good for 31st in the entire country.
Offensive Rebounding Percentage for Morgan State last season, a top 20 mark in the NCAA mostly led by the 7'2 Ian Chiles. Given that Williams is Ohio State's only verifiably large man in the middle, it will be essential to keep this team off of the boards with solid, team-oriented rebounding.
Morgan State's leading scorer last season at 14.2 points per game will be asked to carry a heavy load for the offense. At nearly 3.0 turnovers-per-game last season, I imagine he's going to have a rough time against the active Ohio State guard defense.
He'll be counted on to replace Jackson with an increase in minutes. Duncan finished fifth in the MEAC last season with 2.2 blocks-per-game, but wasn't much of an offensive option. Look for him to attempt to take a bigger step forward on that end this season and take more than five shots per game.
Given that we've already covered Craft and Ross extensively, let's look at the Buckeyes' third best player, Smith. He was counted on as a defensive stopper last season, but this year he'll need to carry a bit more of the load offensively this year and improve upon his nine points-per-game.
Scott was excellent last season according to the advanced numbers, finishing second in the Big Ten in assist percentage, first in steal percentage, and first in assist-to-turnover ratio. These numbers have led to him being something of a surprise starter early in the preseason in two point-guard lineups. He could be in for a breakout season.