The conditioning drills and practice schedules were not much different from in previous years, but there was a newfound sense of urgency for the Ohio State men’s basketball team this summer.
Asked to describe why the team might have been more mentally focused than in previous summers, sophomore Evan Turner had any number of reasons to cite. But the first one out of his mouth was one that will get Buckeye fans excited about the forthcoming season.
“Losing,” he said. “Losing in the Big Ten. None of us lost that much before in our lives, and on national TV. We have to represent Ohio State and the city of Columbus and our families. We want our time here to be memorable. We most definitely want to get back on a winning streak. The NIT is great, but we want more.”
Although OSU did cap its 2007-08 season with an NIT championship as Turner alluded to, there were more than enough disappointments to go around. A Buckeye team that was forced with replacing three first-round NBA draft picks struggled to meet expectations and fell short of reaching the NCAA Tournament.
Looking back, the Buckeyes did not do themselves any favors during the summer of 2007. Incoming freshman Kosta Koufos spent part of the season overseas playing for the Greece U-18 team, sophomore-to-be David Lighty spent nearly two weeks playing for the United States U-19 team in Serbia and incoming captain Jamar Butler worked out at his home in Lima, Ohio, rather than in Columbus.
It all added up to a lack of team chemistry that was only remedied when it was too late for the Buckeyes to make the Big Dance. This year, that will apparently not be a problem.
“Just being there with them for the day-to-day helps you build a better relationship with everybody,” Lighty said. “It helps being here and hanging out and being in the locker room and hanging out with everybody. I think it is even more important, because just knowing everybody’s game is going to help you that much more on the court.”
Although there are a number of new faces on the 2008-09 roster – not including freshmen – Turner said the team already feels like a family. That is no small feat as just eight of the 15 players on the roster are returning from last season.
The summer months see the Buckeyes take place in open gyms but not organized practices. That might make progress difficult to measure, but both Lighty and Turner said they have been pleased with the growth shown across the board.
“Summer has been real great,” Turner said. “I think we all came back with our entire arsenal: better jump shots, my man Jonny D (Jon Diebler) is not missing, Dallas Lauderdale got better, Kyle Madsen got better. I’m just real excited about the team. We’re so fast and have so much depth. We’ll be good.”
Lighty echoed those sentiments.
“I think it’ll go back to like my freshman year when we had about five other players who came in strong,” he said. “There wasn’t a letdown. I think that’s how we’ll be this year.”
As far as the newcomers go, Turner said new point guards Anthony Crater and Jeremie Simmons have caught his eye. Turner himself said he is fully recovered from wrist injuries that hampered his play during the tail end of the season.
The unquestioned leader on the team, however, is Lighty. As the most seasoned player on the team, the returning co-captain is a shoo-in to reprise that role this season.
“Lighty’s always been a team leader,” Turner said. “Most of us would follow him into a death trap. He’s a good guy. He’s our leader. He’s the one who played in the big dance, so whatever he says goes. He knows what it takes to win, and I’d give anything to win.”
However, the Buckeyes have three returning sophomores and two returning juniors who transferred into the program to help round out the leadership.
Turner said he considers himself a leader despite being one of those sophomores.
“I guess so, but I’m fortunate enough to have four or five other sophomores with me, people that played a year or so,” he said. “We have walk-ons that know a lot about the game. We’re all just listening right now and leading. (Lighty) is the head honcho right now and that’s cool. We’re all focused, more focused than we were last year. We’re all competing, and we’re excited about this year.”