*This is the final part of a six part series previewing each Big Ten team.
Part six, Saturday: Ohio State, Indiana
2. Ohio State
2012 was a big year for the Ohio State Buckeyes. The Buckeyes finished last season with a 31-8 overall record and a 13-5 Big Ten record, winning a share of the Big Ten title. They also made some noise in the NCAA tournament. Ohio State reached their third straight Sweet Sixteen en route to their first Final Four appearance in five years. The Buckeyes were the only Big Ten team represented in the Final Four. Ohio State blundered a 13 point first half lead against Kansas and went on to lose in a close finish, 64-62. A season with so many accomplishments still left something to be desired. Ohio State hasn’t won a National Championship for 52 years. The Buckeyes will have to chase the title with a different core this season after suffering the losses of two-time All-American Jared Sullinger and William Bufford, who won 120 games in his four years as a Buckeye. Even without those two, Ohio State is ranked fourth in the nation in the preseason. Coach Thad Matta is confident his group of guys will make up for the team’s key departures.
“Those guys, you can’t replace them,” Matta said. “I think that’s one of the challenges you have with your guys is saying, look, I don’t need you to be Jared or William, I need you to be yourselves and the best you can be. In terms of assessing our team, I’ve seen all of our guys get better individually, which obviously makes us better collectively.”
As the Buckeyes lose an All-American in Sullinger, they gain one in junior forward Deshaun Thomas. Thomas is Ohio State’s leading returning scorer (15.9 ppg) and rebounder (5.4 rpg), earning him preseason First-Team All-American honors. Thomas made huge strides as a sophomore, improving in almost every aspect of the game. Thomas can score in a variety of ways; he’ll alleviate some of the inside scoring and post play lost in Sullinger, but he’s also a respectable shooter (made 50 three pointers last season). As his preseason accolades suggest, Thomas is expected to make another big jump heading into his junior season. This time making a run for National Player of the Year. Matta thinks Thomas will also put his mark on the game defensively.
“The biggest thing that I have seen is he now has such a better understanding of the game of basketball and knowing that there is a lot of different ways that he can affect the game with his rebounding and defense,” Matta said. “I’ve been pleased with what he’s done defensively in practice thus far.”
Joining Thomas on the First-Team All-Big Ten is junior point guard Aaron Craft. Craft is known for his defensive prowess, as he broke the Ohio State record for steals in a single season (98) last year. Craft led Ohio State in assists per game (4.6) and had a respectable 2.2-1 assist-turnover ratio. Craft’s biggest value to Ohio State isn’t shown in the box score. He is their vocal leader and plays with a grit and toughness that is unmatched. Craft has been part of top ten ranked teams his entire career at Ohio State. Craft won’t let the national spotlight get to him.
“We’ve done a good job of trying to keep it within our team,” Craft said. “We know where our team is, we know what we need to work on what we need to get better on. I don’t think we’re the fourth team in the country right now. We’re just trying to focus as much as we can on ourselves and hopefully begin to get ourselves ready for the Big Ten schedule because it’s gonna be tough.”
The lone senior for the Buckeyes is power forward Evan Ravenel. In his first season with Ohio State after transferring from Boston College, Ravenel impressed in limited playing time. He averaged 3.4 ppg shooting 54% from the field in only 10.2 minutes per game. His size, scoring, and leadership will be valuable for Ohio State.
Ohio State will also get more minutes out of the highly-touted recruit center Amir Williams. Now a sophomore, Williams came to Ohio State as the 43rd overall prospect in the nation. Williams spent most of last season sitting on the bench. He’s 6’10” with a versatile post game and a soft touch from 12-15 feet. He picks up a ton of blocks and runs the floor well for a big man. In need of some size, Matta will plug Williams into the rotation this season.
Junior Lenzelle Smith Jr. will be thrust into a starting role this season after emerging as the team’s most improved player last season. After playing only 4.6 minutes per game as a freshman, Smith played big minutes off the bench as a sophomore, averaging 6.8 ppg, 4.6 rpg, and 2.0 apg. He also improved his three point percentage from 12.5% to 37.8%. Smith exploded scoring 28 in a win against #8 Indiana and 18 against 1 seed Syracuse in the Elite Eight. His role and development should continue to expand this season.
Despite major losses, Ohio State still has major expectations for this upcoming season. Matta will rely on stellar play and leadership from Aaron Craft and Deshaun Thomas with such a young roster. If the young players step up and thrive in their increased roles, this could be the year where Ohio State finally gets over the hump and wins a national title.
Three years ago, no one would’ve seen this coming. Coach Tom Crean joined an Indiana Hoosier team that had just lost its star Eric Gordon to the NBA draft and their star senior D.J. White to graduation. The team went 6-25, 10-21, and 12-20 their first three seasons under Crean. A program with banners hanging from the rafters of Assembly Hall in Bloomington signifying their success was now facing a harsh reality. It would take a miracle to expend the Hoosiers from the rut that they lied in. Or better yet, a long, well-drawn out plan; and a player special enough to make the plan fall into place.
In year 4 of Crean’s plan least season, Indiana went 27-9 en route to their first Sweet Sixteen since 2002. With all five starters returning, including preseason National Player of the Year Cody Zeller, the Hoosiers will enter this season as the #1 team in the nation. Crean is used to pressure, but this time it’s because of the team’s success, not failure.
“Our team has had to deal with a lot of other hype that wasn’t necessarily positive,” Crean said. “I think it’s easy to look at the couple of years we started and say, well, Indiana was down and Indiana wasn’t doing this or that and that’s all true. The target of being an Indiana Hoosier has never changed, and Indiana is synonymous throughout the country for being a lot of things in basketball, and it was always a big deal when you were playing Indiana or Indiana was coming to town and that hasn’t changed.”
The Hoosiers will be led by sophomore Cody Zeller in their quest for another championship. Last season Zeller arrived on campus with tons of hype surrounding him as the brother of Cleveland Cavaliers center Tyler Zeller. Fans were hoping to see a good season out of Zeller, maybe see him make the All-Big Ten Freshman team. Zeller completely shattered expectations, leading the Hoosiers in scoring (15.6 ppg), rebounding (6.6), steals (1.4 spg), blocks (1.2 bpg) and field goal percentage (62.3%). His poise and basketball IQ is unheralded for an underclassman. Entering his sophomore season, Zeller has already received preseason Big Ten Player of the Year honors. Zeller wants to continue to hone his skills and improve as a player.
“It’s definitely very motivating,” Zeller said. “I try not to worry about it too much, I realize that I have a lot to improve on. You never get comfortable with where you’re at, there’s always someone out there that’s better than you, so I’m just trying to improve every day and see where it takes me.”
Indiana also returns three seniors, forward Christian Watford, guard Jordan Hulls, and forward Derek Elston.
Watford has always been something of a celebrity on the Indiana campus, but he burst into the national spotlight after draining a buzzer beater three pointer to beat the undefeated Kentucky Wildcats. The shot was constantly replayed on every sports channel and even earned Watford an ESPY award. Watford was Indiana’s second leading scorer (12.6 ppg) and rebounder (5.8) rpg last season. He’ll spend time playing small forward and some time at power forward as a stretch 4, as he hit 52 three pointers shooting 43.7% from beyond the arc. The Hoosiers are glad to have Watford back after he tested the NBA waters. In the end, Watford decided to return to Indiana to accomplish his ultimate goal.
“I just felt like I wasn’t done yet as far as getting back to that point,” Watford said. “I want to return all the way back to the glory days, even though we got to the Sweet Sixteen last year it felt like this year we could do a lot more.”
Fellow Senior Hulls provides another deep threat alongside Watford, as he led the Big Ten in three point percentage (49.3%). Hulls also led the Hoosiers with 3.3 apg. Much like Ohio State’s Aaron Craft, Hulls impact to the team isn’t in the box score. Crean gives his senior high praise.
“Jordan Hulls has been a classic example of what you want your program to be from start to where it is right now,” Crean said. “He’s never come in and wavered one day in his work ethic. You can probably count on one hand the number of days he’s taken off out of 365 days a year. He’s always in the gym, always in Cook Hall or Assembly Hall and he’s a great leader for us.”
Hulls will have some competition at starting point guard in freshman Yogi Ferrell. Ferrell is ranked the 24th best player in the 2013 freshman class. He’s only 5’11,” but he packs a punch and can score in a variety of ways. Ferrell has excellent court vision and loves to get his teammates involved. He plays hard on both ends and loves to compete. At only 160 lbs he’ll need to put on muscle, but he could be a huge coupe for the Hoosiers down the road.
The Hoosier’s return junior Victor Oladipo to round out their backcourt. Oladipo is a menace on the defensive end and drives to the basketball at will. Oladipo averaged 10.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 2 apg, and 1.4 spg. He makes up for his lack of height with freak athleticism and quickness. Oladipo plays with high energy and will matchup against opposing team’s best perimeter players.
It was a slow and painful rebuilding process for Crean, but it has finally paid off. The Hoosiers caught the opposition off guard last season by returning to their successful form faster than many had expected. This season no one will be caught off guard by Indiana. The Hoosiers will have to evolve from the hunters to the hunted, with a constant bull’s eye on them. With Zeller potentially flirting with the NBA after the season, it is now or never for the Hoosiers. Standing as the top team in one of the deepest conferences in recent memory, this might just be their year.