The trajectory of the Ohio State basketball program continues to trend upward at an impressive rate, but head coach Thad Matta can’t help but long for the past.
It doesn’t matter that this year’s Buckeyes are already touted as one of the country’s top teams in the preseason polls, a squad with promises of a new up-tempo offense that is expected to consistently yield exciting plays in transition while utilizing all of the team’s athletic scoring options.
“I’d take effective over exciting any day,” the 45-year-old coach quickly interjected, pointing out that Ohio State is still a work in progress as it heads into tonight’s exhibition game against Walsh in Value City Arena at 7 p.m.
The head coach, already beginning his ninth season in Columbus, has yet to pinpoint the Buckeyes’ exact identity as a basketball team, but one quick look at the roster reveals numerous playmakers who boast immense length and impressive athleticism.
Putting the pieces together to form a rotation – and a personality – should make the 2012-13 season an interesting one. But while intrigued onlookers envision a high-flying, run-and-gun offense primed to coast from one end of the floor to the other while making thrilling plays, Matta takes a step back and remembers Jared Sullinger.
“If I could,” Matta said. “I’d take him back.”
That would be a given since Sullinger produced 17.5 points and 9.2 rebounds per game during his sophomore season before being selected by the Boston Celtics with the No. 21 overall pick in the NBA draft.
With a player such as Sullinger on the roster, Matta already had the big picture intact before putting together other pieces of the puzzle. Things were simpler – almost as easy as instructing a team to throw the ball into the post and allow the two-time All-American to make a play.
When Sullinger was double-teamed or unable to get a clean look at the basket – which was typically the case given that he was the focal point of the opposition’s defensive strategy – his teammates were poised to take advantage.
“Having a guy like that on our team took a lot of pressure off the rest of us,” starting guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. said. “I don’t think people realize how good he is even to this day. Without him this is a completely different basketball team.”
With Sullinger, Ohio State flourished. Despite a midseason, team-wide lull that had OSU questioning its will to practice – which was eventually broken after Sullinger publicly focused attention on the issue – the team overcame adversity before completing Matta’s second run to the Final Four with the Buckeyes.
Countless tough buckets in the post through contact and willful rebounds in traffic were the tangible plays Sullinger brought to the team, all of which were consistently noticed. It is what wasn’t noticed, however, that will be the toughest for the Buckeyes to overcome as they attempt to duplicate success without their star in the paint.
“There is a lot of speed and athleticism, but there are some tangible pieces that are going to be missing this year,” Matta said. “Like I told them before – how many times did he go to the line in the first half with 14 minutes to go to shoot a one-and-one because Jared was already fouled five times?
“We don’t have him anymore. A guy like Jared Sullinger can affect a game, and 99.9 percent of the people don’t even know what he was doing out there.”
But gone is Sullinger, even though expectations remain. Both the USA Today coaches’ and Associated Press writers’ polls ranked Ohio State the preseason No. 4 team in the country. Again, the Buckeyes are expected to compete at the highest level.
“This is how it is at Ohio State,” said senior big man Evan Ravenel. “There is a winning culture here, and it doesn’t matter what’s on the current roster. It is about playing for the ones before us, which is something Coach Matta always talks about. Jared was here before us and he was pretty great. We have to live up to that.”
This is where Matta earns his paycheck. He must turn a deep roster full of talented players – many of whom are vastly limited in college experience – and turn it into a team capable of achieving similar success even without one of the best big men in the country.
Matta has experimented with six or seven different lineups during practice, but the head coach is unsure if tonight’s exhibition game will be long enough to get a look at all them in game action.
Ohio State has three starters back in juniors Deshaun Thomas, Aaron Craft and Smith, which makes for a group that boasts enough potential to think a return to the Final Four is even possible for this team.
The hope in the immediate future for Ohio State, however, is that making up for the statistics Sullinger was all but guaranteed to post on a game-by-game basis will be done collectively with the entire roster.
“It is going to be tough without Jared,” Craft said. “As a team, we can’t expect to replace him with one guy. We have a lot of talent, but it is going to have to be a team effort to replace a guy like Jared, a two-time All-American.
“It has been tough, but I think we’ve adjusted pretty well to playing without him this summer, and once we get into the thick of practice, we’ll get an even better feel for it.”
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