Summer Buzz: Ohio State Buckeyes

August, 4, 2011
8/04/11
10:45
AM ET
For the next month or so, our friends at The Mag are previewing one high-profile school per day for their Summer Buzz series. For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each comprehensive Insider preview with some analytic fun. Today's subject: the Ohio State Buckeyes.

In 2010-11, Ohio State was the best team in the country for 36 games. On the 37th, the Buckeyes lost to Kentucky and a chance at a dominant finish to a dominant season was lost. Now, in 2011-12, OSU is still chasing a title. Jared Sullinger, perhaps the favorite for national player of the year, will still be the centerpiece of the team's offense. Aaron Craft, the precocious point guard, will still be running the show. William Buford, a highly skilled scoring wingman, is back for his senior season.

This is simple, right? Great team returns its best player, team remains great. Easy enough, isn't it?

[+] EnlargeJared Sullinger
Nick Laham/Getty ImagesLook for a more versatile Jared Sullinger to step up this season.
Maybe not, actually. Which -- before Ohio State fans start freaking out on me -- is not to say these Buckeyes won't be good. Rest assured, they will be. It's just that, much like last summer, the Bucks are almost certain to undergo a somewhat drastic transformation in the way they attack opposing defenses. That doesn't mean "better" (though it did last season). It doesn't mean "worse." It just means ... different.

Why so? Start with Sullinger. As a freshman, Sully was a banger, a big, wide force in the low block, one that steamrolled opposing defenses with sheer size and strength. As a sophomore, Sully will be leaner and meaner. He wants to get his weight down to 255 pounds by the time the season starts (he weighed 280-plus as a frosh).

This slimming process will make him more athletic, quicker and sharper. It may also decrease his effectiveness in the low block. But the low block isn't where Sullinger will necessarily spend most of his time. He's working on his overall game, and at the Nike Skills Camps in Chicago this summer, he showcased his ability to hit step-back jumpers, lace 15-foot face-ups, and even nailed a silky 3-point shot.

Nor, if Sullinger does post frequently, will he have the same array of outside options to find for open shots. Specifically, he won't have Jon Diebler. Diebler ended last season with the highest offensive rating in the country. Yes, he was the single-most efficient offensive player in college basketball. That's what happens when you make 114 of 227 3-pointers -- which is just over 50 percent, in case you're counting -- and your effective field goal percentage (70.6) and true shooting percentage (72.3) is the second-highest and highest in the nation, respectively. No one in Ohio State's lineup will be able to replicate that sort of outside marksmanship; few players in the nation ever could.

Gone, too, is the program's consummate glue guy, small forward David Lighty. Lighty was a very capable offensive player, but he never needed shots; he merely took them when the time was right. He also might have been the best all-around defensive player in the country. His length and athleticism allowed him to stifle opposing scorers without fouling, as the Buckeyes somehow (and this never happens) held opponents to the lowest free throw rate in the country while also creating turnovers at a steady rate. Lighty was a major reason why.

Last season, OSU's offensive plan was relatively simple. Get the ball to Jared. See if he can score. If a double team comes, get Diebler open for a shot. Failing that, take the next best thing.

That style seems certain to undergo some major tweaks, if not wholesale change, with Sully Version 2.0 on the floor. There will probably be fewer post possessions and a more open offense. It wouldn't be a surprise to see Ohio State speed things up. Half-court offense is great when you've got mini-Shaq passing to the best shooter in college basketball. But when your entire team is athletic and rangy (your best player more so than ever) and you've got a capable, experienced point guard leading the way, why not get out on the break?

Which brings us to Deshaun Thomas. As a freshman, Thomas was one of the best take-off-the-sweats-and-chuck-'em-up guys in college hoops. He didn't play a ton of minutes -- 14.0 per game, in fact -- but when he was on the floor, his usage rate was the highest of any Buckeye. Thomas had a penchant for taking bad shots, which might be attributed to his wanting to maximize his playing time. He won't have that problem this season.

If coach Thad Matta decides to immediately use freshman center Amir Williams (the No. 4-ranked center in the class of 2011, whose main strength is his athleticism and speed down the floor), that would give him a presumed starting lineup of Craft, Buford, Thomas, Sullinger and Williams. Gone is the lights-out shooting of Diebler and the lockdown defense of Lighty. Instead, the Buckeyes would insert a versatile, 6-foot-6 small forward who can pass, score off the dribble or from mid-range and crash the glass when the ball comes off the rim.

Sullinger with a face-up game, Thomas running amok, Buford spreading the floor, Craft running the show ... all four players were in Columbus last season, and three played major minutes. But doesn't that feel like a different team?

The Buckeyes have been here before. Last summer, they watched as 2010 national player of the year Evan Turner was drafted No. 2 overall by the Philadelphia 76ers. Turner had done so much for the Buckeyes. How could they possibly adapt?

Here's how: By changing their attack entirely. The end result was the most efficient offense in the country, a freshman of the year award for their touted new recruit, a Big Ten title and a memorable 34-3 season.

And so Ohio State will change again. Sullinger is changing his body. Thomas is changing his role. Roster spots are turning over. New truckloads of talent are arriving this summer. But don't fret, Buckeye fans. If you watched your team evolve from a guard-dominated 2010 team, to the inside-out behemoth of 2011, you know better than anyone: Change can be a very good thing.

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