Reloading, Part II: The Ohio State Buckeyes
The tears were flowing in Columbus, Ohio, last April. The Ohio State Buckeyes, who lost to Florida in the BCS Championship game in January and had already lost to the Gators on the hardwood back in December, were swallowed up by the Gators once again, this time in the NCAA title game.
It wasn’t just the losses, especially those to a new hated rival (Florida is likely enemy No. 2 nowadyas behind Michigan in Buckeye Country) that had Ohio State faithful crying. It was the future.
Grandpa-looking Greg Oden’s duration in Columbus wasn’t expected to last more than one year, but there was always hope. That is, until Oden announced shortly after the season that he would go to the NBA (he went No. 1 overall to the Portland Trail Blazers). Another bullet shot through scarlet and gray vests not long after as freshman point guard Mike Conley Jr. announced he, too, would enter the NBA draft (No. 4 to the Memphis Grizzlies). Then there was Daequan Cook, a spark-plug for the runner-up Bucks. Cook, who was named Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year by league coaches, also entered the NBA Draft. Many thought Cook was crazy. Then the Philadelphia 76ers promptly drafted him 21st overall.
Three freshmen phenoms–well, two phenoms and a great energizer bunny off the bench– who could have created a dynasty in Columbus had bolted after one season.
It didn’t stop there. Instead, graduations followed.
Ron Lewis, who was second on the team with 12.7 points per game and hit the 3-pointer in the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 round to sink Tennessee, moved on. So did Ivan Harris, whose 7.6 points per game weren’t as valuable as his 6-foot-7 frame shooting just shy of 40 percent from beyond the arc.
Five of Ohio State’s top six scorers vanished and coach Thad Matta had to be scratching his head wondering, “What the hell am I going to do next season?”
The truth is, Matta likely never scratched his head. He likely was disappointed by the loss of offensive (and defensive) production, but he knew he was getting a one-and-done player in Oden. He likely assumed, as did most everyone else who follows college basketball, that Conley would at least be around for two years. Cook seemed like a nice four-year player. Instead just two players of a five-man recruiting class–David Lighty and garbage-time player Mark Titus–came back for a second season.
Matta never panicked. Instead, that sound heard ‘round Columbus was the coach putting new shells in his automatic shotgun.
The Buckeyes weren’t rebuilding. They were reloading.
Of course, with all the hype generated in East Lansing about Michigan State’s star-studded team and in Bloomington as Eric Gordon is giving Hoosier fans dreams of their first Final Four since 2002, all the sounds in Columbus went unnoticed. At best, the Buckeyes were supposed to challenge Wisconsin and Purdue for the Big Ten’s bronze medal.
Things have gone somewhat as planned, except that the world is finding out just how good the Buckeyes are now, and how good they will be in the future. (A Lansing State Journal columnist already stated the Big Ten’s top two teams for the foreseeable future will be the Spartans and Buckeyes).
Kosta Koufos is a big reason for the lofty expectations. He’s averaging 13.7 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game, all in just 25 minutes a night. The 7-footer isn’t close to being Greg Oden, but he is providing similar, just slightly diminished, numbers.
Evan Turner and Jon Diebler are fifth and sixth, respectively, in scoring for the Buckeyes. Turner is scoring 7.8 ppg while Diebler is averaging 6.7 ppg. A 6-6 wingman, Turner’s biggest asset is his 54 percent field goal percentage. He also averages more than a steal a game. The 6-6 Diebler started the year with the label “deadly 3-point shooter.” Now, when he’s behind the arc, people chant “Stone Cold,” and they’re not talking about the WWE’s Texas Rattlesnake, Stone Cold Steve Austin. Diebler is 26-for-98 on the year from 3-point range (26.5 percent) and 0-for-18 in his last four games.
Throw in the senior leadership of both converted point guard Jamar Butler (a team-leading 14.7 ppg, 6.3 apg, 95.8 FT%) and power forward Othello Hunter (9.7 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 1.4 bpg), and the quickness of Lighty (9.4 ppg, 1.2 spg), and the Buckeyes haven’t lost much of a step.
Even the scrappy freshman P.J. Hill, whose hair and defensive prowess reminds viewers of UAB’s Squeaky Johnson, is contributing by chalking up hustle plays each night.
The Buckeyes aren’t exactly in the national spotlight this year, but the statistics show they aren’t that far off. Ohio State (14-6, 5-2 Big Ten) has a decent record despite playing a brutal schedule thus far. Five of the six losses are to NCAA Tournament-bound teams (Texas A&M, North Carolina, Butler, Michigan State, and Tennessee), while the Buckeyes do have a neutral court win over Syracuse, a road win against Cleveland State, and a home win against Florida on the resume.
No one is carving Ohio State’s name in the NCAA Championship trophy at the moment–heck, no one is even assuring the Buckeyes of a NCAA Tournament berth. But that’s just it. This Buckeye team is a shell of last year’s squad and still sitting at No. 4 in the Big Ten behind three teams that are a combined 47-5. And opponents are starting to worry.
Ohio State should be favored in its next three games before a home date with the Indiana Hoosiers. Winning those three games would put the Buckeyes at 17-6 overall and 8-2 in the Big Ten. Did anyone see it coming?
Matta did. In response to a question about the OSU-Florida game earlier this year, Matta said, “We had a backup plan called ‘special.’” Matta, of course, was talking about Plan B if Florida’s outside shooting destroyed Ohio State’s 2-3 zone.
In all reality, he could have been referring to this year’s team. It is, undoubtedly, Plan B, since Matta had hoped to have more ammunition in the chamber.
‘Special.’ A perfect name for these Buckeyes.