The Ohio State men’s basketball season tips off Saturday against Morgan State. Here’s a look at five things The Lantern’s sports editors believe will loom largely this winter as the Buckeyes look to advance deep into the NCAA Tournament for the third year in a row.
1. Does Aaron Craft continue to develop on offense?
Since coming to campus in 2010, senior guard Aaron Craft has been known as a defensive force on the basketball court. In his second season with the Buckeyes in 2011-12, Craft earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors for his ability as an on-ball defender. But the difference between Craft and some of the nation’s best point guards is his inability to be a leading threat in scoring. Although Craft did average a career-high 10 points per game last season, he only averages 8.6 per contest over his career. That number that will need to increase if Ohio State hopes to achieve the lofty heights it has reached each of the last two seasons. Craft spent the offseason working on his jump shot after never shooting higher than .500 in a single season. The defensive presence will be there, but OSU needs to Craft to be a more prolific scorer to continue the program’s recent success.
2. Does LaQuinton Ross step up as a leader?
Junior forward LaQuinton Ross is talented — there is no denying that. Just look at what he did during OSU’s NCAA Tournament run last season. Ross averaged 15 points a game in the tournament, including hitting a game-winning 3-pointer in the Sweet Sixteen against Arizona. But now Ross will be a starter for the Buckeyes for the first time in his career, and most fans expect him to step up in a big way. Although his career scoring average is only 7.1 points per game, the flashes of brilliance last year show the dynamic that Ross could bring to the team as a big man who can hit 3-pointers. In 2012-13, Ross finished second on the team behind junior forward Sam Thompson in 3-point percentage at .389. If Ross can keep up his upward trend, expect a big season from the Jackson, Miss., native.
3. How long is Thad Matta willing to wait on Amir Williams?
Although he stepped in valiantly when Jared Sullinger was in foul trouble two years ago in OSU’s 77-70 Elite Eight victory over Syracuse, the junior center has not yet blossomed into his full potential. At times last year, Williams seemed finally ready to take the next step and be the dominant force down low OSU so desperately needed. But at other times, he would commit silly fouls, forcing Matta to go with a smaller lineup. Williams said at OSU Media Day Oct. 10 he has bulked up in the offseason in preparation to take more hits in the paint. But if he is unable to show he can rebound and defend consistently without fouling, don’t expect Matta to wait on him too long. Junior center Trey McDonald could see more playing time, or we could see more of the smaller lineup that the team used last year.
4. Are the Buckeyes ready for another brutal Big Ten season?
When it comes to college basketball, the Big Ten is the best. Although perennial powers Kentucky, Kansas and Louisville are always tough, their respective conferences do not hold the same weight as OSU’s. With the loss of Deshaun Thomas leaving scoring in question, the Buckeyes will need to defend like they always do in order to compete. OSU was 27th in scoring defense last season in the country, only giving up 59.4 points per contest. In a loaded conference, team defense like that again will be key. Any injury to a starter, particularly if it is a leader like Craft or Lenzelle Smith, Jr., could really test the depth of the team as it slugs through the Big Ten part of its schedule starting New Year’s Eve.
5. Lenzelle Smith Jr.
Smith has been a staple to the Buckeye starting five for two seasons already, and is nothing short of a solid player. He rebounds well for a guy who is only 6 feet 4 inches tall and is always willing to defend bigger guys in order to shut them down for OSU’s benefit. However, Smith seems hesitant to shoot the ball despite his 37.4 shooting record from beyond the arc. It is no secret the team as a whole needs to score more because of the void left by Thomas, but Smith and Craft need to be the guys who lead the charge.