Diehard Ohio State basketball fans are likely still reeling from the heartbreaking loss their beloved Buckeyes suffered at the hands of Wichita State in the Elite Eight. But once the disappointment fades it will be time to turn their attention toward next season.
When determining whether the Scarlet and Gray will be better or worse in the 2013-14 campaign than the previous one, the logical place to start is the departure of superstar Deshaun Thomas. The versatile forward led the Big Ten in scoring and was the one consistent go-to guy in an offense that often became stagnant in the half court.
Even if Thomas did come with some frustration (poor shot selection and occasional defensive lapses come to mind), he will be a monumental loss that will be near impossible to replace.
Another red flag regarding next season is where the low-post production will come from. Evan Ravenel became a critical component to Ohio State’s late-season turnaround on both ends of the floor. His absence may not be crippling, but it will certainly be felt. Throw in the fact that Thomas was often the “big man” in Thad Matta’s center-less lineup and there is legitimate concern.
Matta can’t really be sure what he is going to get from Trey McDonald, who rarely saw the court last year, so that means the vast majority of the low-post minutes will fall on the bordering-on-bust-status shoulders of Amir Williams. If the former McDonald's All-American can make the jump that Buckeye fans have been desperately waiting for since he arrived in Columbus, the Buckeyes have a chance to contend for a Final Four (that is admittedly a big if).
There are a number of reasons to be optimistic that Matta’s squad can make a Final Four run despite potential issues.
Ohio State will have senior leadership in place next year in the form of the starting backcourt. Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Aaron Craft will constantly handle the ball and set the tone on both ends of the floor. Craft is already arguably the best leader in college basketball and there is no reason not to expect more of the same from the senior version.
Additionally, this year’s super sophomores will be grown up. Shannon Scott, LaQuinton Ross and Sam Thompson all established themselves as significant contributors at times this season, but they were also somewhat inconsistent. That is to be expected from young players.
They will all be juniors next season, so perhaps that will bring more dependable production. The hope is that Williams follows suit.
Another area to glean hope from is the recruits that Matta is bringing in for next season. It isn't a particularly large class (only two members), but Kameron Williams and Marc Loving serve as potential answers to some of the questions facing Ohio State.
The Buckeyes were a fairly poor three-point-shooting bunch in 2012-13, and they lose one of their long-range threats in Thomas. Kameron Williams’ best attribute is his shooting and ability to put the ball in the basket, which will help stretch opposing defenses and assist in the stagnant half-court sets.
As for Loving, it would be completely unfair to ask him to replace Thomas immediately, but he is a very similar player. Loving is almost identical in size, has the ability to score from both the inside and outside, and should be able to rebound. That formula from a stretch-forward may sound familiar to Ohio State fans.
Perhaps the best thing going for the Buckeyes heading into next season is the fact that they know exactly who they are. Matta’s team spent much of this past year trying to establish an identity. They vacillated between an up-tempo group and a grind-it-out Big Ten stereotype early in the season and struggled because of it.
Matta revamped the strategy in February, and Ohio State became a defensive juggernaut that allocated the minutes accordingly. Suddenly athletes like Scott and Ross were seeing more time and the forced turnovers and subsequent easy transition buckets resulted in an impressive winning streak, conference tournament title and deep run in the NCAA tournament.
The Buckeyes will certainly benefit by knowing their identity from the start next season.
Even though there are certainly issues to work out, the positives and potential outweigh the question marks. Ultimately, even without the services of Thomas, Ohio State will be a better basketball team in 2013-14.