The Sporting News just released their Preseason Top 25 rankings, and Ohio State found themselves in familiar territory as of late, smack in the top 10. Number #3 actually, even though their best player is now getting ready to suit up for the Boston Celtics.
The cupboard certainly isn't bare for the Buckeyes, though. OSU returns one of the most electric scorers in the country in 6'7" wing in Deshaun Thomas who put the Bucks on his back during the tournament and was at times more valuable than even Sullinger. Thomas' affinity for shooting is well documented (Thomas sometimes play offense like we played NBA Jam, only without the ability to dunk from half court. YET.), but he showed that when he's willing to put in the effort, he can be an effective defender as well. With Buford and Sullinger gone, and without another go-to scorer in the the wings, Thomas may end up averaging over 20 points per game (15.1 last season), and if he remains healthy, should be a candidate for national awards at the end of the season. When it comes to scoring, Thomas is unquestionably "the man" for the Bucks this season.
The Buckeyes also still have Aaron Craft, who is still one of the best on-ball defenders in college basketball, and one of the best point guards. Craft is insanely tough, capable of distributing the ball effectively, and is a steals machine (2.5 last season). Foul trouble is sometimes a concern, along with health, and Craft isn't an especially dynamic scorer (a modest 71% from the line last season, 8.8 PPG). Still, Craft and Thomas alone are a lot to like, and are reason enough to make OSU a top 25 caliber team that nobody will want to play in March
But 3rd best in all the country, especially in a particularly loaded Big Ten? I see way too many question marks on the squad for that. First, there's the schedule. The Big Ten boasts what should be the nation's top team in Indiana (and #1 on the Sporting News list). Indiana's Cody Zeller is a ridiculously efficient offensive force, and Christian Watford is the Big Ten's leading returning scorer. That's as formidable front line as you'll see in college hoops this season, and the Bucks will see them at least twice. Michigan is also loaded this year, with the Big Ten's best scoring guard (Trey Burke), and experienced, big time three point shooting. Michigan is #5 in Sporting News' top 25, and the Bucks get them twice too. Wisconsin checks in at 17 and Michigan State at 22, and even though both teams graduated very talented players, their coaching is exceptional and Madison and East Lansing are *very* difficult places to play. The Bucks play Duke and Marquette on the road, and Kansas at home before Big Ten play as well. OSU could be excellent, but with that schedule, I think they'll get dinged enough to not warrant a #3 ranking.
Even if the Buckeyes had a fall stuffed with the Houston Baptists and Chicago States (oh wait, just kidding; they play Chicago State), their roster has enough question marks to give a reasonable Buckeye fan pause. The Matta era has been known for offensively talented big men (Sullinger, Oden, Kofus, Mullens) who can open up space for shooters and wings. The Buckeyes will be starting a very talented sophomore in the 6'11" Amir Williams, but a point scoring threat he is not, at least not now. Williams showed flashes of great shot blocking instinct late last year, but he hasn't demonstrated anything to suggest he's going to be a low post scoring threat out of the box. Senior Evan Ravenel is similar, in that he can provide great interior toughness, but can't be counted on to provide baskets. The frontcourt scoring is going to have to come from Thomas and LaQuinton Ross, who will need to have a big season if the Buckeyes are going to reach lofty heights this year.
The Bucks might not just be weak on frontcourt scoring, there may not be a reliable second scoring option on the roster at all right now. Ross and Sophomore guard Shannon Scott are going to be the two names that will have to shoulder the scoring load. Scott played 10 min a game last year and didn't shoot particularly well (he was 1-18 from 3, and only 28% from the floor) but more experience and additional playing time should bring that up some. Freshman guard Amedeo Della Valle has a reputation for being a lights out marksman from downtown, which would be critical for a squad that doesn't have a lot of three point shooting. If he struggles to adapt to the college game and Scott and Ross can't handle the burden, OSU could be in trouble if Thomas finds himself in foul trouble.
Ohio State should still be really good this year. They might have the best team defense in the entire country, and if Thomas heats up, he could drop 34 on anybody. This squad is going to depend a lot on Williams, Ross, and Scott and all three are just sophomores with big shoes to fill. Because of that, I think I'd rank OSU around 11-12, but they'll certainly have chances this season to make some big statements.
After all, I've played enough NBA Jam to know that if you have a guy who can get steals, and another guy who is ON FIRE, it's pretty hard to lose.