Ohio State returns just two seniors this season, but make no mistake, this is a very experienced team.
The Buckeyes bring back eight players total from last year's team that made it to the Elite Eight and came within four points of reaching the Final Four from the second straight season. So, when Thad Matta's bunch is described as experienced, it's not just because they've played a lot of basketball, it's because they're experienced when it comes to winning at the highest levels.
For the two seniors, though — Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith Jr. — there's only one box that still needs to be checked on their NCAA tournament bucket list: get to the national title game. As freshmen, the two reached the Sweet Sixteen, the next season it was the Final Four and last year the Elite Eight. As Smith put it, there's just one place to go.
"As seniors, I think it's a great opportunity for us. We've been to the Final Four, we've been to the Sweet Sixteen, we've been to the Elite Eight. The only thing we haven't done yet is win a national championship, and I think out of Elite Eight, Sweet Sixteen, Final Four, the only way to go is up and that's to the national championship," Smith said at Big Ten basketball media day on Halloween. "I think that would be a great thing for us."
"I think we're excited," Craft said. "We've got a lot of guys back that were really close to going to back-to-back Final Fours last year. There's a hunger and a fight within us. We're thirsty to get back to that point, but at the same time really honing in on each day and trying to make the most of it."
While it'll be difficult to replace the 19.8 points per game averaged by the departed Deshaun Thomas, Craft and Smith are leading the charge. They both started every game last year, as did fellow returner Sam Thompson. Craft has earned preseason honors as a member of the All-Big Ten team, and he said that the experience this team has will certainly be a strength.
"Guys understand how coach Matta works and how we need to play," Craft said. "And I think that's helped a lot just starting off practice. There's been a lot less walk-around, a lot less explaining. We just jump right into practice, which is good."
And another benefit to all those returning players, Craft said, is that leadership isn't an issue. In fact, it's a collective thing.
"We only have two younger guys ... Seven upperclassmen, which is nice. The leadership role doesn't really fall to anyone in particular, we've kind of done it the team way," Craft said. "Lenzelle's been around a while, and then with the five juniors. Everyone's kind of jumped in, and everyone has an opportunity to lead."
The Buckeyes finished the regular season 26-7 with a 13-5 conference mark that culminated in a championship at the Big Ten tournament. Ohio State made it all the way to the Elite Eight, blowing out Iona before edging out Iowa State and Arizona. Their Elite Eight loss to Wichita State came by just four points, denying back-to-back trips to the Final Four.
At the helm
Thad Matta is in his 10th season leading the Buckeyes, and it's been one very successful run. Five times he's coached a team that won 29 or more games in a season, including two trips to the Final Four and one to the national title game. The last two seasons have seen Matta take the Buckeyes to an Elite Eight and a Final Four, and with many of the same players back, there's no reason to think he can't do it again.
Departed and returned
The loss of guard Deshaun Thomas is a big blow to the Buckeyes. Thomas led the team averaging 19.8 points per game last season, leading the Big Ten in scoring during the regular season and ranking 21st nationally. But Ohio State has to be thrilled with who's returning: all but three players from last season's team. That includes three players who started every game in Aaron Craft, Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Sam Thompson. Craft was named to the preseason All-Big Ten team after a great junior season that saw him lead the team in steals and assists and rank second in scoring with 10 points per game.
"Deshaun Thomas had the ability to make difficult shots, and we gave Deshaun a lot of opportunities to score," Matta said. "The thing that I've seen to this point so far is everybody on the team has made drastic improvements offensively. And that's exciting for me."
With so many players back for the Buckeyes, there isn't much room for fresh faces, but Thad Matta has still managed to keep his recruiting skills sharp, bringing in a pair of freshmen both ranked in the top 80 by Rivals. Marc Loving, the No. 67 recruit this season, is a 6-foot-7 forward out of Toeldo, Ohio, who ranked as the Buckeye State's top prospect. Guard Kam Williams is from Baltimore and ranked No. 79 in Rivals' rankings.
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Ohio State's first non-conference challenge comes Saturday, when the Buckeyes visit a ranked Marquette team in Milwaukee. They get Maryland at home in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge and meet a ranked Notre Dame team at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 21.
It figures to be another successful season in Columbus thanks in most part to a very experienced team. This group knows how to reach the deepest rounds of the NCAA tournament, and with their skill and experience there's little reason to believe they won't be there again come March/April.
This is the 11th in a series of 2013-14 Big Ten basketball previews, which CSNChicago.com will be rolling out over the next few days as the college basketball season gets into full swing. Be sure to check out all the previews to get ready for your favorite Big Ten team's upcoming season.