Category archive: Ohio State Buckeyes

Brad Stevens is universally loved in the college coaching profession.

So don't take the shock and surprise of Stevens' move to the NBA's iconic franchise in Boston as a sign of disrespect.

His peers and colleagues are simply in awe by the timing, not by the move.

"The best young coach I have seen in my time," said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim. It's high praise for Stevens, who coached in consecutive national title games in 2010 and '11.

"Coach Stevens is everything that is right about our profession, and was an absolute star at Butler," said Marquette's Buzz Williams, who was going to be a chief rival for Butler in the new Big East Conference but now will face a new coach in the fledgling league. "I anticipate he will be the exact same with the Celtics."

Mike KrzyzewskiAP Photo/Amy SancettaMike Krzyzewski, left, and Brad Stevens meet before the national title game in 2010 where Duke beat Butler 61-59.

Stevens had professed for a few years how comfortable he was at Butler. He was hand-picked by his former mentor, Barry Collier, to be the head coach. He could have jetted off to UCLA. He would have had Illinois. He may have been next in line to be the head coach at Indiana or Duke or Kansas or North Carolina whenever those jobs were to open. Who knows? He was that highly coveted and respected.

"I am very excited for Brad, his family and the Boston Celtics," said Ohio State's Thad Matta, a former Butler coach. "He did a masterful job in his time at Butler, and as an alum I know he will be greatly missed. He has a great mind for the game and great instincts in dealing with players. I look forward to following his path to success with the Celtics."

New UCLA coach Steve Alford, a native of Indiana like Stevens, has always had incredible respect for the way Stevens has handled himself and the program.

"I'm very happy for Brad," Alford said. "He's done a phenomenal job at Butler and is very deserving of this opportunity. Great hire by the Celtics."

To Memphis coach Josh Pastner, who is just a year younger than Stevens at 35, there was immense adoration for the path Stevens has blazed for coaches younger than 40.

"I think Brad is one of the great coaches of the game, regardless of college or pro," Pastner said. "It's basketball. He'll do great with the Celtics. It's a great hire by Danny Ainge. A great hire. I think age is overrated. You either get the job done or you don't. You can do it or you can't. He's proven he can do the job. He has had tremendous success at Butler."

But no one has been more effusive in his constant praise of Stevens than Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, the USA Olympic and national team coach. Krzyzewski was quick to compliment Stevens in the lead-up to the 2010 national title game. Coach K's Blue Devils beat the Bulldogs 61-59 -- in Indianapolis -- in one of the most epic national title games in the past 25 years.

Krzyzewski said he was as surprised as everyone else by the Celtics tabbing Stevens. But he said that's because "Brad is one of the great college coaches. He's an outstanding coach. He's at a time -- he's young -- I can see him wanting to do something different. He's terrific. It's a great hire for the Celtics."

Krzyzewski said he knows exactly what Stevens was going through since he had to weigh the same decision in 1990 when the late Dave Gavitt approached him about being the head coach of the Celtics. Krzyzewski said no at the time.

"I almost did it with the Celtics," Krzyzewski said. "I can understand it."

A source told ESPN.com on Wednesday night that the Celtics tabbed Stevens as their top choice once Doc Rivers was let out of his contract and essentially traded to the Clippers. The Celtics loved his character and knowledge of the game. His demeanor didn't hurt, either. He has always been extremely even.

"He's really smart," Krzyzewski said. "His teams play that way. He's just a heckuva of a coach. He has a maturity of an established head coach right away. I just think -- forget about young coaches -- I think he's one of the best coaches. I don't think you could have a better guy. He's smart and he'll adapt. I think he'll do a really good job there."

Recent college-to-NBA head coaching gigs have been doomed to fail, including Mike Dunlap, who went from being a St. John's assistant to the head coach in Charlotte, Lon Kruger going to Atlanta, Mike Montgomery to Golden State, or Leonard Hamilton to Washington.

But this is the Celtics and Stevens, who has been penciled in for a Hall of Fame ticket after six seasons by his peers. Krzyzewski isn't worried about the veteran NBA players giving him instant credibility in the locker room and in the huddle.

"He'll have respect," Krzyzewski said. "He's accomplished. Players respect success. He's had great success right away. So I don't think he'll have any problem with the players respecting him. They'll respect him. They respect excellence. He has it. It's a terrific hire. I'm a friend of his and I wish him the very best and I'll be pulling for him. To take over one of the most storied franchises in sports in an incredible opportunity, I can understand him doing it."

Ohio State coach Thad Matta doesn't promote himself.

Winning does that for him. So, too, do all the NBA draft picks who continue to come through Columbus, Ohio.

Deshaun Thomas is about to be added to that list and just completed the pre-draft combine in Chicago. No matter -- Matta and his Buckeyes are back at work, prepping for yet another run toward a Big Ten title.

Count them out because Thomas is gone? That wouldn't be smart. There are certain programs that we expect to be good, regardless of the personnel. We fill out the preseason polls and pencil in Duke, Kentucky, Florida, Louisville, Michigan State, Syracuse, North Carolina, Kansas, Arizona, Wisconsin, etc. Ohio State is as much a part of this list as any other.

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Ohio State's Thad Matta
Greg M. Cooper/US PRESSWIREOhio State has been a model of consistency in the nine years since Thad Matta took over.

The numbers back up the hype.

Matta has won or shared a piece of the Big Ten title five times in his nine seasons, and his Buckeyes won the Big Ten tournament championship in March even though the league was as good as it's ever been. The Buckeyes have been to two Final Fours in Matta's tenure and are coming off an Elite Eight appearance. They've done all of this despite losing a player early to the NBA in six of those nine years.

"I love where our program is right now,'' Matta said. "A lot of this has to do with the culture in the program and what is expected of the guys and how we do things. It hasn't been easy. We've had big challenges. We continue to coach the heck out of the guys we've got.''

Ohio State has always been considered one of the top jobs in the country because it has one of the richest athletic departments, is within driving distance of fertile recruiting territory, and boasts one of the Big Ten's brand names that carries plenty of weight.

There were plenty of successful seasons in the 20 years before Matta arrived, including Gary Williams' tenure and Jim O'Brien's Final Four trip in 1999. But Matta has elevated OSU to another level, a consistency that may be taken for granted at times.

Matta's teams develop and get better as the season goes along. That was certainly true last season after OSU lost at Duke and to Kansas in Columbus. After a 1-3 stretch in league play, Matta told his players in February that that they had to get going if they wanted to make the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. Ohio State returned from a 71-49 loss at Wisconsin to spank Minnesota by nearly the same score (71-45) three days later. The Buckeyes ended up winning 11 games in a row after that embarrassment in Madison, Wis., and were stopped just short of the Final Four by upstart Wichita State.

Despite that mini-skid in the Big Ten, when the Buckeyes lost three of four, they were still a tip-in away from getting their sixth piece of a conference title. That kind of success, winning five Big Ten titles in nine years, was hardly the norm at Ohio State.

So now what?

Well, the Buckeyes can't change who they are, which means Aaron Craft, the gritty and defensive-minded point guard, can't be someone he is not as a senior. Yes, he made a big-time 3-pointer to beat Iowa State in the NCAA tournament. But he averaged 10 points a game and shot 30 percent on 3s last season. He's not suddenly going to become a reliable double-figure scorer and volume shooter who can make three to four 3s a game. That's not who he is or needs to be for Ohio State.

No, the 20 points per game that Thomas is taking with him will have to be dispersed among a variety of players, and the offseason focus is already shifting to ensure that Sam Thompson, LaQuinton Ross, Shannon Scott and Lenzelle Smith Jr. can produce at a higher level. The need for Amir Williams to be more productive is also a must, and expectations are always high for OSU freshmen -- and so it will be again with Kameron Williams and Marc Loving.

The Buckeyes will be tested early. They drew Maryland in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, have a road game at Marquette (the two never got to play their scheduled game on an aircraft carrier last year), and play Notre Dame in the Gotham Classic at Madison Square Garden with three mid-major sleepers in the preliminary rounds (Delaware, North Dakota State, Bryant).

"It's going to be interesting how this all comes together,'' Matta said. "We'll have a much different team.

"Our big focus right now is to look at our guys' weaknesses and improve on them in the offseason. We're hoping they have self-discipline and make the right strides to become better players.''

Editor's Note: For Eamonn Brennan's analysis of Ohio State's key player in 2013-14, click here, and read John Gasaway and Reggie Rankin discuss the potential impact of OSU's incoming freshmen here Insider.

A few quick hitters for this midweek:

• USC interim coach Bob Cantu met with AD Pat Haden last week and is getting, at the very least, the respect of being treated as a legitimate head-coaching candidate. The Trojans are 7-4 since he took over for the fired Kevin O'Neill. USC finishes the regular season at Washington and Washington State this weekend. And with more offensive fluidity, the Trojans are a potential spoiler in the Pac-12 tournament next week in Las Vegas.

The odds that Cantu will get the job are not good. He is just plowing ahead with this team and isn't politicking for the job. Haden interviewed UTEP head coach Tim Floyd -- Cantu's former boss -- as well as Syracuse assistant Mike Hopkins. I'll be shocked if other top candidates don't emerge in what should be one of the best jobs in the Pac-12.

If Cantu can't get the USC job and doesn't stay on with the Trojans, he deserves a shot at another California school, if there is an opening.

• Miami coach Jim Larranaga felt very good about his team's effort last Saturday in a loss at Duke. And he certainly won't complain about the Hurricanes' 7-2 road record in the ACC.

"We played eight really good games and one poor game at Wake Forest,'' Larranaga said. "Our effort at Duke was good enough to win. But Ryan Kelly, well, there was no way we could have planned for that. We knew he was going to play, but we thought he would get 12-14 points, and we could survive that. But 36 points on 14 shots?''

Miami finishes with Georgia Tech on Wednesday and Clemson at home on Saturday, which will likely allow the Canes to win the ACC regular season outright.

"We scored 76 points and we missed two 3s that could have tied it [against Duke],'' Larranaga said. "I was not satisfied with our defense and some of that is my own responsibility.''

Reggie Johnson didn't score in the game, and Larranaga said that he may have been overhyped.

"He can play a lot better than he did,'' said Larranaga. "He didn't have a good game, and Ryan Kelly did.''

Larranaga thinks Shane Larkin should be named the ACC player of the year (and I agree) once Miami wins the ACC regular-season title.

"You should vote for the player from the team that wins the outright championship,'' said Larranaga. "We should have the player of the year for the first time in school history. We beat the No. 1 team for the first time in school history and set attendance records. But all the things we've done are a prelim to the NCAA tournament because all everybody remembers is March Madness.''

Miami should also have all-conference players in Kenny Kadji and Durand Scott.

• I've never understood why teams do senior day/night festivities after the game. Indiana had to wait until it was midnight Tuesday after losing to Ohio State to honor its seniors. Why not take care of it before the game when the house is full and the attention is on the game/players and not on getting home to beat the traffic and weather?

• St. John's Steve Lavin and Notre Dame's Mike Brey both confirmed Wednesday there will be no further suspension for Cameron Biedscheid and Sir'Dominic Pointer beyond the one-game that they must sit per NCAA rules for being ejected for fighting. Losing Pointer is more of a hit for the Red Storm, which host Marquette on Saturday. The Irish play at Louisville in a game that would be a reach for them to win even with Biedscheid.

• Boise State's four-point loss at UNLV should be a precursor to what the Broncos can do next week in Las Vegas on the same floor. Playing late in the season at the site of the conference tournament should help them in the MWC tournament.

• John Thompson III (Georgetown), Buzz Williams (Marquette) and Kevin Ollie (Connecticut) are all Big East coach-of-the-year candidates, but Providence's Ed Cooley is making a late push. The Friars play at UConn on Saturday and are looking for win No. 10 in the Big East.

• Memphis is once again undefeated in C-USA after a two-point win at UTEP on Tuesday. It was yet another road win for the Tigers, whose 15-0 league record should be applauded, not scorned, due to the perceived lower-level of competition.

• Ole Miss still has life in the NCAA tournament chase after beating Alabama by four at home Tuesday. Now the onus is on the Rebels to win at LSU on Saturday and give the committee pause when it meets next week in Indianapolis.

• Ohio State's Thad Matta has had to do one of his best coaching jobs. The Buckeyes' win at Indiana should go down as one of the most impressive in conference play this season. Everything pointed to Indiana cruising to the Big Ten regular-season title by closing out the home schedule in the final week. The Hoosiers are still the top seed and cut down the nets late Tuesday night. But Ohio State was in control in the second half and cannot be dismissed at the Big Ten tournament in Chicago next week.

NEW ORLEANS -- Ohio State needed this Final Four.

Thad Matta did not.

Matta has never been about self-promotion. The Buckeyes' coach is a fierce competitor but never talks about his need to collect rings, according to his good friend and former assistant Sean Miller of Arizona, even though Matta has piled away a combined eight conference titles in stops at Butler, Xavier and Ohio State.

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Thad Matta
Greg M. Cooper/US PresswireThad Matta eschews individual attention, but his record over the past decade speaks for itself.

Ohio State's athletic department was reeling a year ago as its football program, the crown jewel of Columbus, was embroiled in a scandal. An investigation turned up NCAA violations, which were followed by suspensions and eventually the departure of longtime coach Jim Tressel.

The Buckeyes survived the turmoil and have been rejuvenated by the hiring of Urban Meyer. And while the two sports don't rely on each other, athletic director Gene Smith said the department needed something like the Buckeyes' NCAA tournament run to get everyone back on board.

"This means a great deal," Smith said. "We've gone through quite a bit of challenges, and you're trying to highlight the positives.

"At the end of the day, it's football and basketball where all of the fans' interests are, and when basketball makes a great run like this, it helps remind people what we're all about," Smith said. "It gives people pride. It's significant. It's significant."

Spring football practices start Thursday, which is certain to create additional buzz in Columbus this weekend while the Buckeyes are in New Orleans preparing for Saturday's national semifinal against Kansas. Smith said Meyer will try to fly down to New Orleans on Saturday if his schedule permits.

"With practicing starting Thursday, with the Final Four, and then the spring game on April 21, we have a chance to really continue to help our fans feel positive," Smith said.

Smith said Matta's handling of this squad, especially with the losses of Jon Diebler and David Lighty from last season's team, has been proof of his exceptional leadership.

"I'm proud of the work he's done," Smith said.

So, too, is Miller. Well, he's almost in awe.

"Thad is a very unique coach," said Miller, who replaced Matta at Xavier before he went to Arizona. "It's part of why he's so great at what he does. To me, he thinks differently than a lot of coaches in that he has very little ego.

"I don't know if his big picture is as important to him as it is to others who have won like him. I don't think Thad aspires to be in the Hall of Fame. He isn't counting his rings, and he has quite a few. He's more into coaching and motivating his team. Thad doesn't think about his legacy as much as other great coaches do."

Miller said that Matta should be considered one of the best coaches, if not the best, in the past 12 years.

"I think he's the most successful during that span," Miller said. "He's won the Big Ten regular season five times, won eight conference titles at three different places.

"He was the first coach at Xavier that took that program to the next level in a classic Elite Eight loss to Duke [in 2004] that had us on the doorstep of the Final Four," Miller said. "He was the first guy at Butler to do it and had Wake Forest down 43-10 at the half in the [2001] NCAA tournament. Look what he has done at Ohio State. He doesn't covet and doesn't clearly get enough credit for being one of the very best."

Ohio State is one of the most fertile recruiting grounds in the country. Matta has found some of the best players in the country yet survives early departures on almost a yearly basis.

And he's doing all of this while dealing with a drop foot, a condition that is the consequence of neck/back surgery and requires him to wear a brace to walk.

"I don't know how long he'll coach, since he's doing it with a drop foot," Miller said. "In general, most head coaches and assistants would have called it quits under similar circumstances. He undersells how hard a situation he has. His toughness and resolve and humility is so unique by today's standards in coaching."

Ohio State doesn't need to hold back its effusive praise for something good in the department. And that allows Matta to do what he does best: coach and win without much fanfare or attention.

A Sweet 16 appearance elevates a program to the next level.

A Final Four moves it up another notch.

The matchups usually make the difference in getting this far. Talent -- and star power -- also play big roles.

There is a certain level of pressure for all coaches and programs. For some, it's self-induced. For others, it comes from a passionate fan base. Some programs need to reach the Final Four for the season to be considered a success. Some do not.

With that being said, here is our Final Four pressure-meter (1 feels the least amount of pressure and 10 feels the most):

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Perry Jones
Peter G. Aiken/US PresswirePerry Jones' Bears have the talent to reach New Orleans, but they have a big hurdle to clear in the South Region.

Baylor (5): The men's team doesn't need to make a Final Four appearance. The women will take care of that, as they are the favorites to win the national title. But the men's team has the makeup to make this run a rare one. Few teams have length like the Bears do, and it's unlikely that Perry Jones III will stick around for a third season. The reason Baylor doesn't have as much pressure to reach the Final Four, even though it has the personnel to make it to New Orleans, is the bracket it's in. Kentucky could stand in the way of Baylor's potential first men's Final Four appearance. The Wildcats are the clear favorites, so expecting the Bears to advance to the Final Four from the South wouldn't be fair.

Cincinnati (3): Cincinnati has survived suspensions and a bumpy ride in the Big East. The Bearcats thrived at the end of the season and reached the conference title game. Mick Cronin and this crew have exceeded expectations by reaching the Sweet 16. Playing one of the favorites in Ohio State takes more pressure off the Bearcats. This ride now is all about extra credit for Cronin and Co.

Florida (4): The Gators won two national titles in consecutive seasons. It will be hard for any program to duplicate that -- ever again. Keeping a team together like the '04 class for the '06 and '07 titles will be extremely difficult to match unless the NBA draft rules change again. The Gators had an easier road to the Sweet 16 thanks to a depleted Virginia team and playing Norfolk State, which exhausted itself with the stunning upset over Missouri. But the Gators don't need to get to the Final Four. If Florida does reach New Orleans with this flawed group and its suspect inside game, it would be quite a feat. The Gators are the lowest remaining seed in the West, too. Expecting them to get past Marquette and possibly top seed Michigan State would be a bit much.

Indiana (3): Tom Crean has turned the corner in Bloomington. There was legitimate reason to be concerned last season. But Crean recruited exceptionally well, getting a star in Cody Zeller, and he got his players to believe they could win big-time games. The victory over Kentucky will resonate for some time. Reaching the Sweet 16 gives Crean even more credibility and respect in the state. However, for this team to get past Kentucky would be asking too much. No one should expect a win over the Wildcats again. To advance to the Elite Eight and the Final Four would be sensational accomplishments. Even though the fan base expects greatness, Indiana has already exceeded any expectations by getting this far.

Louisville (5): The Cardinals are the "pro" team in town. And like Kentucky, the expectations include Final Four appearances. But Louisville has gone through a slew of injuries, and there was no reason to believe it could maintain a high level of play throughout the season. Still, the Cards survived to reach the Sweet 16 and face top-seeded Michigan State. The most pressure may be felt in trying to keep up with rival Kentucky. The expectation is that the Wildcats will be in the Final Four, so why not join them and create even more frenzy in a hoops-crazed state?

Kansas (9): The Jayhawks have two of the top players at their positions in Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor. Kansas expects to compete for conference and national titles, regardless of personnel, every season. And while Bill Self had to deal with rotation players not being eligible, including top newcomer Ben McLemore, the Jayhawks still won the Big 12 regular-season title for the eighth straight time. Kansas survived against Purdue, but had it not been for a guard meltdown the Jayhawks may be idle right now. Instead, they have new life in the Midwest, thanks to NC State's Sweet 16 run and North Carolina potentially being without Kendall Marshall in the Elite Eight (if the Tar Heels get past Ohio). The pressure has ratcheted up for the Jayhawks. If Marshall is out for this weekend in St. Louis, the Jayhawks are the new favorites in the Midwest.

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Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
Jamie Rhodes/US PresswireAs the favorite to win the title, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Kentucky have to feel the pressure.

Kentucky (10): The Wildcats are the front-runners to win the national title, not just get to the Final Four. Let's be honest, anything less than a title would be a disappointment. No team in the Sweet 16 has as much pressure to get to the Final Four as Kentucky. The Wildcats have the most talent, the national player of the year in Anthony Davis, and plenty of other pro talent on the roster (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb). Darius Miller also played in the Final Four last season. John Calipari has coached in three Final Fours. The Wildcats are playing a team that handed them their only regular-season loss. A possible matchup with Baylor is more than formidable. The Bears can match Kentucky's length and shooting, but Baylor's defense has never been its strong suit. The region still lays out well for Kentucky in SEC-rich Catlanta.

Marquette (6): The Golden Eagles play as hard, if not harder, than any other team in the field. Marquette's beat down of BYU in the second half and its ability to run past Murray State late were quite impressive. Now, the Eagles get a Florida team that it matches up well with since they can defend the 3-point shot. Marquette should be the favorite in this game and has the personnel and the toughness to beat Michigan State or Louisville. A Final Four isn't expected with this group, but now the bracket has opened up a bit with Missouri gone. A loss in the Elite Eight makes more sense, but there is some pressure for Marquette to advance with Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom leading the way. The Eagles have been to a Final Four with Dwyane Wade under Crean. A berth for Buzz Williams would raise his coaching profile.

Michigan State (8): The Spartans lost one of their key rotation players in Branden Dawson in the final regular-season game against Ohio State. But they won the Big Ten tournament title without him and earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs. Draymond Green has been the most valuable player so far in the NCAA tournament and has a legit shot to lead the Spartans to another Final Four. Michigan State expects Final Fours under Tom Izzo, but this team certainly didn't look the part early in the season. It has matured into a title contender. And while the bracket is filled with potential hurdles, the Spartans have the pressure of being a top seed and the expectation of a Final Four appearance.

North Carolina (8): The Tar Heels would have had a 10 in this spot if Marshall didn't fracture his wrist against Creighton and have surgery on Monday. Now, the pressure of reaching the Final Four has dropped a few spots. North Carolina was as healthy as it had been in weeks at the start of the game with the Bluejays. But the Marshall injury makes the Tar Heels extremely vulnerable. Ohio is capable of pulling off another upset. And if the Tar Heels get past Ohio, a revenge-minded NC State team or title-contending Kansas awaits. The Tar Heels were built to win a title. That's why Harrison Barnes didn't opt for the NBA. Tyler Zeller had opportunities, as well. The roster is deep enough to absorb injuries to Leslie McDonald and Dexter Strickland. Let's see if it can take its worst hit and survive without Marshall or having him only on a limited basis. The expectations for a Final Four may have dropped outside of Chapel Hill, but it hasn't inside the Dean Smith Center. Carolina should expect to be in the Final Four yet again. It's just tougher with Marshall's injury and Kansas potentially looming.

NC State (2): The Wolfpack have far exceeded expectations under Mark Gottfried. NC State was the last team revealed on Selection Sunday. It had to be one of the last teams in the field prior to the four at-large teams that played in the First Four. NC State lost a 19-point lead at Duke, and the Wolfpack couldn't close out UNC in the ACC tournament. But they grinded out wins over San Diego State and Georgetown in their first two games of the tournament. This program has had low expectations for years. The Final Four would be gravy on what has already been deemed a highly successful season. The Wolfpack draw Kansas and if they somehow get past KU (not improbable), they could face a rematch with UNC. One can only imagine the scene in Raleigh if NC State, and not UNC, made the Final Four.

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John Groce
Don McPeak/US PresswireOhio coach John Groce could be walking into a difficult situation if he leaves for Illinois.

Ohio (1): The Bobcats are one of the tournament's great stories. Ohio played one of the more dramatic conference tournament title games when it knocked off Akron in thrilling fashion. The Bobcats got a decent seed at 13 and were matched up against a flawed Michigan squad. Ohio was aggressive and had the more experienced lead guard in D.J. Cooper (vs. the heralded Trey Burke) against the Wolverines. The Bobcats then faced a 12-seed in South Florida that couldn't score and was playing its third game of the tournament. Now, Ohio is playing with house money. The Bobcats have zero pressure in reaching the Final Four. Sure, they are facing a North Carolina team that will likely be sans Marshall. But to expect Ohio to win two more and get to the Final Four would be unfair. Ohio has already made its mark with this Sweet 16 appearance and coach John Groce can likely write his own ticket to a higher-paying job in the Big Ten if he chooses to do so.

Ohio State (9): The Buckeyes would have been a 1-seed if they had beaten Michigan State in the Big Ten title game. Jared Sullinger is healthy again, and the personnel hasn't changed. The Buckeyes possess some of the top players at their respective positions in Aaron Craft (top on-ball defender), William Buford (elite shooter) and Deshaun Thomas (a tough matchup as a face-up forward). Ohio State drew an instate rival in Cincinnati. The Bearcats will muck up the game and challenge everything. The top part of the bracket would be just as difficult with either a lock-down defensive team in Wisconsin or an up-and-down transition squad with a pesky zone in top seed Syracuse. But the Orange don't have Fab Melo, so if you were to re-rank the East bracket, the Buckeyes would have to be the favorites. That puts more pressure on Ohio State, and with Sullinger possibly leaving for the NBA, the window to reach the Final Four is now.

Syracuse (9): The Orange were built for a Final Four run. No team had players coming off the bench like Dion Waiters, C.J. Fair and Michael Carter-Williams. Fair is starting now, but the overall depth is still impressive. Melo's ineligibility knocks the Orange down from a 10. The expectation was Final Four or bust since they started showing their dominance during the Big East season. Syracuse has tremendous versatility with Scoop Jardine, Brandon Triche and Kris Joseph all able to make key shots. The Orange weren't tested by Kansas State after surviving a scare from UNC Asheville. The expectation is that it should beat Wisconsin and play against Ohio State. Syracuse may not be projected to beat the Buckeyes in a possible Elite Eight matchup now, sans Melo, but the pressure is there to get to a Final Four with a group that won't be together next season.

Wisconsin (4): Bo Ryan has never reached the Final Four. But he has had better teams projected to go farther. This squad has improved more than any of the previous teams he's coached at Wisconsin. The Badgers lost three early-season home games, and that rattled their confidence. But it didn't take away their resolve. Wisconsin found its shooting stroke, maintained its defensive intensity and got star-level play out of a role player in Ryan Evans. Jordan Taylor is still the leader and will take -- and make -- the big shots. The Badgers were the more polished team in wins over Montana and Vanderbilt. The expectation to knock off Syracuse isn't high. But if that occurs, then a team they already beat -- Ohio State -- could be standing in their way. The Badgers' last Final Four appearance was in 2000. The fan base is hungry for another run, but it doesn't need one. Ryan would like one, but he knows this may not be his best shot. Still, it's plausible in the current bracket.

Xavier (3): The Musketeers may not have been here had it not been for an A-10 title game appearance. Xavier had to mount a season-long repair project to get to this point. And it worked. Coach Chris Mack deserves as much credit for this run as the criticism he took for the way he initially handled the post-brawl situation. He matured as a coach during the season, dealt with his own knee injury and clearly got his lead guards, notably Tu Holloway, to refocus on the task at hand. Xavier survived Notre Dame by playing smarter than the Irish. It showed more moxie than Lehigh in finishing with a strong kick. No one is expecting Xavier to make the Final Four, even those that projected the Musketeers to do so in November. But Baylor is beatable. Taking down Kentucky would be quite a feat. The pressure is low. Xavier has already exceeded the expectations of a team that once had Final Four aspirations but didn't play that way for most of the Atlantic 10 season. Now that it's two wins away, the pressure is even lower. Xavier has already done well to finish the season on a high.

College basketball could use a Heisman-like award, one main honor instead of the five mainstream national awards.

The problem is that finding a consensus for the Wooden, Naismith, AP, Rupp and Oscar Robertson honors is no easy task.

The awards voters do tend to coalesce behind one candidate. And maybe that will be the case again.

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Harrison Barnes
Peyton Williams/Getty ImagesA favorite in the preseason, Harrison Barnes hasn't been the dominating player for UNC.

But it seems that this season's race will be as wide open as ever. If you need more evidence, take a look at the 25 finalists for the Wooden Award, released on ESPNU and ESPN.com on Tuesday.

It appears that the only two players who are consensus candidates are Kansas' Thomas Robinson and Creighton's Doug McDermott. It's not a reach to say these two players are the favorites in mid-January, a stunning development considering how much preseason hype Ohio State's Jared Sullinger and North Carolina's Harrison Barnes received. The amazing part thus far is that I don't believe Sullinger nor Barnes would be a first-team All-American if the voting were conducted today.

Before we get to the list of players compiled by the Wooden folks, it's important to note that these are simply the 25 players who they felt should be honored on their midseason list. Players who do not show up are still very much eligible to win the Wooden Award at the end of the season and will be given equal consideration.

So players who have legitimate claims to being on this list -- Maryland's Terrell Stoglin and Seton Hall teammates Herb Pope and Jordan Theodore come to mind -- still have a shot.

So without further ado, here are the 25 Wooden finalists (in alphabetical order):

Harrison Barnes, 6-foot-8, So., F, North Carolina
Stat line: 16.8 ppg, 4.8 rpg

Chances: Fading. Still has a shot to be a second-team All-American. Barnes hasn't been the dominating player on the Tar Heels. To be fair, he has some of the best talent in the country (John Henson, Tyler Zeller and Kendall Marshall) surrounding him. UNC's 33-point loss to Florida State didn't help his case, either.

Will Barton, 6-6, So., F, Memphis
Stat line: 18.2 ppg, 9.0 rpg

Chances: No shot. He could be the Conference USA Player of the Year, though. Barton has greatly improved and has been the most consistent player during the Tigers' inconsistent season.

William Buford, 6-6, Sr., G, Ohio State
Stat line: 15.2 ppg, 4.6 rpg

Chances: No shot. Buford won't win Big Ten POY, either. He has been OSU's best perimeter threat, but he won't be a first-team All-American. Buford might not even be first-team All-Big Ten. He is an integral part of the Buckeyes' title hopes, but is not a POY contender.

Anthony Davis, 6-10, Fr., C, Kentucky
Stat line: 13.1 ppg, 10.2 rpg, 4.6 bpg

Chances: High. Davis has been the most dominant post player in the country. He blocked a last-second shot by North Carolina's John Henson in December, preventing the Tar Heels from winning a game at Rupp. He alters and changes more shots than any other player. If the Wildcats win the national title, Davis will be one of the reasons why. He would be ahead of Ohio State's Jared Sullinger on the All-America ballot if you had to choose one of them.

Marcus Denmon, 6-3, Sr., G, Missouri
Stat line: 17.8 ppg, 5.5 rpg

Chances: Not great. Denmon is the leading scorer for Mizzou. But it's hard to separate him from Kim English, Ricardo Ratliffe, Michael Dixon and Flip Pressey in his importance to the Tigers. They all have played an equal role in Missouri's impressive start. It will be interesting to see which of these players earns first-team All-Big 12.

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Green
Mike Carter/US PresswireIf Michigan State stays in the Big Ten race, Draymond Green has a shot at first-team All-American.

Draymond Green, 6-7, Sr., F, Michigan State
Stat line: 15.8 ppg, 10.1 rpg

Chances: In the mix. If he continues his current pace of scoring and rebounding, Green could end up nudging out Sullinger for Big Ten Player of the Year. The Spartans did lose at Northwestern on Saturday, but Green has been a tremendous leader. He will stay in the chase for a first-team All-American spot if his team stays in the race for the Big Ten title.

John Henson, 6-11, Jr., C, North Carolina
Stat line: 14.4 ppg, 9.7 rpg

Chances: No shot. Henson didn't convert the biggest shot of his season against Kentucky. Davis blocked it. And if Barnes isn't the national player of the year, Henson isn't either. The 33-point loss to Florida State will haunt all Tar Heels candidates.

John Jenkins, 6-4, Jr., G, Vanderbilt
Stat line: 19.8 ppg, 2.8 rpg

Chances: No shot. Jenkins is a superb shooter and scorer and is leading the revitalized Commodores. But his role isn't more important than Jeffery Taylor, Brad Tinsley or Festus Ezeli -- it is equally important. The 'Dores mid-nonconference slide hurts Jenkins' campaign. The success of the Kentucky freshmen also makes it almost impossible for Jenkins to get SEC Player of the Year.

Orlando Johnson, 6-5, Sr., G, UCSB
Stat line: 20.2 ppg, 6.4 rpg

Chances: No shot. Johnson is having a stellar season for the Gauchos, and he may be one of the higher draft picks on this list. But the Gauchos are 8-6 and are trailing Long Beach State in the Big West. Johnson should be an All-American, but he won't make the first team.

Darius Johnson-Odom, 6-2, Sr., G, Marquette
Stat line: 18.2 ppg, 3.3 rpg

Chances: No shot. DJO has had a superb season for the Golden Eagles. He has a legit shot at Big East Player of the Year. But that won't be enough to get a first-team All-American spot or the national POY. Marquette has been decent, but not great enough for DJO to stand out on that pedestal.

Kevin Jones, 6-8, Sr., F, West Virginia
Stat line: 20.6 ppg, 11.1 rpg

Chances: Decent. Jones has put it all together as a senior and has put up just a monster season for the Mountaineers. Just seems like it's double-double after double-double for Jones, who will need to keep the Mountaineers in the top 3 of the Big East in order to stay in Wooden contention.

Perry Jones III, 6-11, So., C, Baylor
Stat line: 14.2 ppg, 7.5 rpg

Chances: No shot at player of the year, but he is in the hunt for a first-team All-American slot. The problem for Jones' candidacy is that Quincy Acy has been a comparable inside scorer and guard Pierre Jackson has been an integral member of this team. Jones didn't help his case when he and the Bears were dominated by Kansas' Thomas Robinson in a loss on Monday night. But he can't win national POY if he isn't the Big 12 Player of the Year. And Robinson is the favorite for that honor.

Kris Joseph, 6-7, Sr., F, Syracuse
Stat line: 13.7 ppg, 4.6 rpg

Chances: No shot. Joseph is leading the Orange, but this team is so deep, so talented and so balanced that you would have a hard time picking just him. Dion Waiters may be Syracuse's MVP. A number of other players have taken turns being the star for the Orange, too.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, 6-7, Fr., F, Kentucky
Stat line: 13.4 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 49.4 FG percentage

Chances: Solid. Kidd-Gilchrist could be the SEC Player of the Year. And if he gets that honor, he'll be in contention for the national POY. Kidd-Gilchrist took a few games to get going, but once he did he was an offensive force. He has delivered on his talent and effort.

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Doug McDermott
Peter G. Aiken/US PresswireCreighton's Doug McDermott has been one of the most complete players in the nation.

Jeremy Lamb, 6-5, So., G, Connecticut
Stat line: 17.9 ppg, 4.2 rpg

Chances: No shot. Lamb is leading the Huskies in scoring. But UConn is still finding its way in the Big East. The Huskies haven't featured Lamb as much, either. Andre Drummond may end up being the team's featured scorer by season's end. Lamb isn't the Big East Player of the Year right now, so he isn't winning the national honor.

Damian Lillard, 6-3, Jr., G, Weber State
Stat line: 25.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 3.5 apg

Chances: He won't win national POY, but he should be in contention for second-team All-American honors. Lillard is having a stellar season for the Wildcats, who are in first place in the Big Sky. He leads the nation in scoring and his stat line is as good as any in the country. The problem is that Weber has been in obscurity so far this season. Lillard will likely not be seen by the masses until March.

Doug McDermott, 6-7, So., F, Creighton
Stat line: 24.3 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 62.1 FG

Chances: High. McDermott has been one of the most complete players in the country and is a first-team All-American, at the very least. He could be this season's Jimmer Fredette, coming from outside a power six conference to win the national player of the year honor. McDermott has led the Bluejays to the top of the Missouri Valley and into the Top 25. He is the focus of every opposing defense, too.

Scott Machado, 6-1, Sr., G, Iona
Stat line: 13.1 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 10.3 apg

Chances: Not happening for POY, but he's in the hunt as a first-team All-American. Machado has been the most dominant point guard this season and easily leads the country in assists. Iona has played a decent schedule and is the team to beat in the MAAC. Few teams will want to face the Gaels in March, and Machado is one of the key reasons why.

Kendall Marshall, 6-4, So., G, North Carolina
Stat line: 5.8 ppg, 9.6 apg

Chances: No shot. Marshall is a key for the Tar Heels. He hasn't been the best point guard in the country, but has been a solid contributor this season and does rank second behind Machado in assists. But that isn't enough to win the award or be a first-team candidate.

Mike Moser, 6-8, So., F, UNLV
Stat line: 13.9 ppg, 11.2 rpg

Chances: No shot. But Moser has to be in contention for a first- or second-team All-American spot. His rebounding has been epic (especially against North Carolina). Moser and fellow UCLA transfer Chace Stanback have been the major reasons the Runnin' Rebels are ranked and in contention for the MWC title.

Arnett Moultrie, 6-11, Jr., C, Mississippi State
Stat line: 16.5 ppg, 10.9 rpg, 0.9 bpg

Chances: Not good for POY, but he's a serious candidate for first-team All-American. Outside of Moser, Moultrie has had the most impact of any transfer. He has increased MSU's chances of being a serious threat to Kentucky in the SEC. Moultrie is a double-double machine for coach Rick Stansbury and has allowed the Bulldogs to avoid relying only on Renardo Sidney.

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Thomas Robinson
Peter G. Aiken/US PresswireBaylor's focus in its rematch with Kansas -- stopping Thomas Robinson, who had 27 points and 14 rebounds in their game in January.

Thomas Robinson, 6-9, Jr., F, Kansas
Stat line: 17.8 ppg, 12.3 rpg

Chances: High. Robinson is the POY favorite at this juncture. He should be a consensus first-team All-American. He has had to take on immense responsibility with the departure of the Morris twins and has responded without a hitch. He carries the weight of the incredible burden of losing his mother during last season. And yet he is as focused as ever in 2011-12. Robinson dominated in the rout over Baylor on Monday night with 27 points and 14 rebounds.

Mike Scott, 6-8, Sr., F, Virginia
Stat line: 16.9 ppg, 8.9 rpg

Chances: He has no shot for national POY, but Scott is one of the favorites for ACC Player of the Year. He has been the most consistent big man in the league. Take Scott off the Cavs, and they don't come close to the top of the league standings. But Virginia did lose at Duke and also fell to TCU. Scott will have to keep the Cavs in the ACC's top three to have a chance at the league's POY.

Jared Sullinger, 6-9, So., F, Ohio State
Stat line: 17.3 ppg, 9.3 rpg

Chances: Still strong. Sullinger has been battling injuries (back, foot) and missed the road game at Kansas in December. That's part of the reason he is not the favorite right now. Sullinger still has plenty of time to be a first-team All-American and the Big Ten Player of the Year. But it would help if he had some dominating performances down the stretch.

Cody Zeller, 6-11, Fr., C, Indiana
Stat line: 14.8 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 1.4 bpg

Chances: No shot. But Zeller is in the chase for Big Ten Player of the Year. At the very least, he'll be the Big Ten Rookie of the Year. It's amazing that he's on this list and his older brother Tyler (a senior at North Carolina) is not. Cody has helped transform Indiana into a national player, but the Hoosiers' recent two-game skid does take his chances for Big Ten POY down a peg.

My midseason All-America team choices:
First team: Robinson, McDermott, Davis, Moultrie, Machado
Second team: Kidd-Gilchrist, Sullinger, Green, K. Jones, C. Zeller

Ohio State was tabbed as the consensus Big Ten favorite on media day Thursday in Chicago -- and the conference certainly plans to reward the Buckeyes early on in league play.

Examine the conference schedules of the contenders and it's clear that, barring early missteps or injuries, the Bucks should get out to a solid start early on and get out to a comfortable league lead.

Let's examine six of the more interesting schedules in the Big Ten this season:

The favorite

Ohio State

First eight: Northwestern, at Indiana, Nebraska, at Iowa, at Illinois, Indiana, at Nebraska, Penn State
The Buckeyes don't play a ranked team until Michigan on Jan. 29. They should be 8-0 heading into that game.

The middle six: Michigan, at Wisconsin, Purdue, Michigan State, at Minnesota, at Michigan
Clearly there are speed bumps here with the UW road game and plenty of danger spots along the way.

The final four: Illinois, Wisconsin, at Northwestern, at Michigan State
Ohio State has struggled in the past at Northwestern. This could be a dicey finish to the season if these last two games matter. Wisconsin will get its last shot in Columbus, but will it be too late for the Badgers? The Buckeyes also will be in tournament form by the time they get to this stage.

The contenders

Wisconsin

First eight: at Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan State, at Michigan, at Purdue, Nebraska, Northwestern, at Illinois
There are four road games in here, and none will be easy. The Badgers might have a hard time keeping pace with Ohio State early in the conference race. Nebraska will be up for its first Big Ten home game. Winning at Michigan, Purdue and Illinois will be quite a chore for this team. The Badgers run the risk of being two to three games behind Ohio State.

The middle six: Indiana, at Penn State, Ohio State, at Minnesota, at Michigan State, Penn State
Wisconsin doesn't get much of a break here, either. The Badgers will be looking at a three-game grouping of OSU, at Minnesota and at Michigan State. Keeping pace with OSU in the middle of the conference will be exceedingly difficult.

The final four: at Iowa, at Ohio State, Minnesota, Illinois
The Badgers might have to concede the Big Ten title by the time it gets to the road game at Ohio State -- unless the Buckeyes have slipped up. The final two games should give the Badgers the momentum needed to be strong going into the Big Ten tournament.

Michigan State

The first eight: Indiana, at Nebraska, at Wisconsin, Iowa, at Northwestern, at Michigan, Purdue, Minnesota
The Spartans will have to play four of the first six on the road. Michigan State will be road tested by this time with the games against North Carolina in San Diego, versus Duke in New York and at Gonzaga. Still, the environments will be tough. MSU will have to weather this to stay in the race early.

The middle six: at Illinois, Michigan, Penn State, at Ohio State, Wisconsin, at Purdue
Once again, the Spartans have a consistent schedule in which no grouping is free of potholes. They will have to steal a road game in this group to stay in the race.

The final four: at Minnesota, Nebraska, at Indiana, Ohio State
If the Spartans are still in the race, hosting OSU to end the season is a coup. It could also dramatically help MSU's seed potential in the NCAAs. The most dangerous game, though, could end up being at Minnesota. That could turn out to be a pivotal game for both schools.

Michigan

The first eight: Penn State, Minnesota, at Indiana, Wisconsin, Northwestern, at Iowa, Michigan State, at Purdue
The Wolverines could get off to a contending start with this opening. Don't be surprised to see Michigan, instead of the Badgers, on Ohio State's heels early in the conference season based on this schedule.

The middle six: at Ohio State, Indiana, at Michigan State, at Nebraska, Illinois, Ohio State
This is where we'll know whether Michigan is a pretender or contender. The Wolverines get two shots at Ohio State in this group, go to Michigan State and face a possible danger game at Nebraska.

The final four: at Northwestern, Purdue, at Illinois, at Penn State
Michigan could be in the chase and might need another road win here or could be positioning itself well for seeding in the Big Ten tournament.

No favors for the rebuilder

Iowa

The first eight: Purdue, at Wisconsin, at Minnesota, Ohio State, at Michigan State, Michigan, at Purdue, Nebraska
The Hawkeyes are expected to be improved this season, but the record in the Big Ten might not look that way early with road games at Wisconsin, Minnesota and MSU, plus Ohio State in Iowa City, in the first five games.

The middle six: at Indiana, Minnesota, Penn State, at Northwestern, at Penn State, Indiana
If it still has confidence, Iowa has a chance to pick up a significant number of wins here.

The final four: Wisconsin, at Illinois, at Nebraska, Northwestern
The Hawkeyes are a legit spoiler in this scenario and could have a strong finishing kick to be trouble in the Big Ten tournament.

Can the Cats finally do it?

Northwestern

The first eight: at Ohio State, Penn State, Illinois, at Michigan, Michigan State, at Wisconsin, at Minnesota, Purdue
Northwestern hasn't had great starts in the Big Ten. This won't be an easy chore with road games at OSU, Michigan and Wisconsin. But that does mean getting three of the toughest out of the way early.

The middle six: Nebraska, at Illinois, Iowa, at Purdue, at Indiana, Minnesota
This is where the Wildcats have to make up ground and mount a bid campaign. Stumble here and the bid-less streak could continue.

The final four: Michigan, at Penn State, Ohio State, at Iowa
The Wildcats have an intriguing finish. OSU will be a struggle, of course, but Northwestern does have a schedule that provides a strong opportunity to impress the committee. The key will be weathering that rough start.

Ohio State lost three games last season.

One to Wisconsin on the road. One to Purdue on the road. One to Kentucky on the final possession in the Sweet 16.

"We won 34 games, were the No. 1 overall seed, and we had the No. 51 player drafted in the NBA, and that was it," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said of the team he has returning.

The reference is to Jon Diebler, the sharpshooting 3-point specialist whom the Portland Trail Blazers selected late in the second round.

The Buckeyes also lost big man Dallas Lauderdale and lanky, all-purpose veteran defender David Lighty. But there's no denying the talent remaining in Columbus. With all the talk and debate surrounding mega-talented teams at North Carolina and Kentucky, and with serious repeat chatter at UConn after the late addition of Andre Drummond, it's easy to forget about Ohio State.

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Jared Sullinger and Aaron Craft
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallSophomores Jared Sullinger and Aaron Craft have Buckeyes fans thinking big things for 2012.

That's not advisable.

The Bucks return the best big man in the country in sophomore Jared Sullinger, one of the top scoring wings in senior William Buford, a heady point guard in sophomore Aaron Craft, a rising talent in sophomore Deshaun Thomas and a stellar group of newcomers led by McDonald's All-Americans point guard Shannon Scott, center Amir Williams, small forwards Sam Thompson and LaQuinton Ross and Boston College transfer Evan Ravenel. That is without question a preseason top-five team.

Ohio State won't even start school until Sept. 21 under the quarter system but can start to work out with the coaching staff Thursday. So as other title contenders are already nearly a month into their pre-preseason grind, the Buckeyes haven't begun.

"What's funny is that in late August, we had a team meeting and we were saying goodbye, while other teams were saying hello," Matta said. "We're going to semesters next year, but the one thing we haven't done [in the quarter system] is wear down. We start a month before the season, and that's enough."

Matta isn't dismissing the importance of losing Diebler and Lighty. The Buckeyes had a phenomenal 2010-11 season, and those two played a large part in their success.

"The intangibles will be missed, and those two were phenomenal practice players," Matta said. "They brought energy every single day. They were upbeat and always smiling and always wanting to give more."

Nevertheless, the Buckeyes will be the overwhelming favorite in the Big Ten and more than likely a top-four team nationally when the preseason polls come out. The reason won't be just Sullinger, who honored his initial declaration that he would return for his sophomore season. There are also Craft and Buford, who realize they will need to be stars for the Buckeyes to reach their full potential, a trip to New Orleans for the Final Four.

Craft said that studying the three losses last season showed that the Buckeyes weren't always on the same page defensively. He said he needs to make smarter decisions with the ball and cut down on his turnovers. He and Sullinger need to lead as sophomores even more.

Craft also said he still thinks about the shot made by Kentucky's Brandon Knight that ended OSU's season earlier than expected -- the second straight season the Buckeyes lost a Sweet 16 game in the final seconds as a top-two seed. Sixth-seeded Tennessee knocked them out in 2010.

"I should have kept Brandon to his left hand," Craft said. "He hit the game winner to his right before in the tournament [against Princeton]. I need to make more shots and see where I can attack more. I'm learning."

Craft also said he wasn't surprised that Sullinger honored his commitment and stuck around Columbus.

"He's been awesome," Craft said. "He loves being at Ohio State. Jared jokes around a lot, but that's one of the topics he wasn't going to joke around about."

Craft, who said it's still surreal to see what occurred after that infamous cookout he attended at Bruce Pearl's house, said he will need to take advantage of the open looks he can get resulting from Sullinger's double-teams.

So will Buford.

"This is what I've been working for," Buford said. "I'm the only senior on the team. I've talked to Lighty about this and know that a lot of what we need to do comes down to defense."

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Purdue V. OSU
Greg Bartram/US PresswireAs a senior, William Buford will stress defense to his teammates.

Buford said he knew after last season that he wasn't going to leave early for the NBA.

"We all have high expectations, and losing in the Sweet 16 has made us hungrier," Buford said. "We want to make it farther after the last two Sweet 16s. It came down to defense and toughness and certainly if I played better, too."

Buford echoed Craft's thoughts on Sullinger, saying that his work ethic has been tremendous and his post moves have been unstoppable.

Matta said that the staff is expecting Buford to have a major breakout year and that most people don't realize he's within 672 points of becoming the all-time leading scorer at Ohio State.

"He's had a great offseason and worked really, really hard," Matta said. "We're expecting big things. At the end of his sophomore year, he was playing some of the best basketball defensively. He wants to be more well-rounded. And he's a winner."

Matta said Craft has been motivated by the recruiting services that didn't rate him highly. But he calls Craft, like Buford, a winner. "He wants to win for all the right reasons," Matta said of Craft. "I think we saw signs last season when he could score the ball. He does a great job of setting up everybody."

Matta hasn't seen Sullinger work out because the Buckeyes aren't in school, but the sophomore's body has improved. Matta said he fully expects a slimmed-down Sullinger to be even more nimble on his feet.

As far as the schedule goes, Ohio State will be challenged with home games against Florida (Nov. 15) and Duke (Nov. 29), then a trip to Kansas (Dec. 10). But the Buckeyes are the easy choice in the Big Ten, even with a tough conference draw that includes two games apiece against Wisconsin, Michigan and Michigan State in the unbalanced scheduling of a 12-team league.

Still, the team returns quite a bit from a 34-3 squad.

"I looked back at our season last year and realized we had an incredible run," Matta said. "I'm very, very proud of what they did and the togetherness we had."

So why isn't there more national buzz about the Buckeyes? Well, perhaps it's because OSU has fallen short of expectations in the Big Dance lately, possibly leading to skepticism.

On paper, Ohio State has what it takes to win it all.

Now for the hard part -- going out and getting it done.

The two missed free throws stick with Jared Sullinger.

In a two-point loss to Kentucky in this past season's Sweet 16, the Ohio State freshman finished with 21 points and 16 rebounds and made all but two of his nine free throws. But those two misses came on separate trips to the line in the second half of a tight game in Newark -- a game eventually won by UK on a Brandon Knight jumper with nine seconds remaining.

Two days later, the Wildcats beat North Carolina and moved on to the Final Four in Houston. All Sullinger and the Buckeyes could do was watch.

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Jared Sullinger
Nick Laham/Getty ImagesJared Sullinger was a beast against UK, but the Buckeyes weren't able to pull off the win.

"My coach [Thad Matta] always said I should have made those, and I know I should have gone 9-for-9. If that happens, we tie Kentucky instead of Kentucky winning by two," said Sullinger by phone from Columbus. "It bothers me. That team was something special, not just on but off the court. It ended so shortly. It was tough to see [seniors] David Lighty, who played for a national championship, never win one, or Jon Diebler, who had a hard time starting out as a freshman elevating to what he did, and even Dallas [Lauderdale] accepting his role … and it just ends like that."

The star freshman who made the big shot, Knight, declared for the NBA draft. The star freshman who came up short, Sullinger, did not. He chose to stay in his native Columbus instead of almost certainly being selected in the top five of the draft.

His only regret? Those two missed free throws. As for the pros, Sullinger swears he never gave declaring a second thought.

He's not wired that way. Never has been. May not be for quite some time.

"Jared has a mother, a father and two older brothers -- all college graduates -- and no one is looking at him as a meal ticket," said Jared's father, Satch Sullinger, who just concluded a 32-year career as a high school coach, including the last 10 at Northland High in Columbus.

"Jared enjoys college. I told him you have a lifetime to be an adult and go to the next level. You're not going to have the teammates you have now that bleed scarlet and gray. You'll have guys whose contracts are coming up and need this and that. They'll have attitude. Are you ready for that?"

Sullinger was even more direct when critiquing the parts of his son's game that have to improve.

"I told him you're going to be a 4-man at the next level and you've got to prove that," Sullinger said. "He told me he loves this team and he wants to win a national championship. That's why he stayed. I taught my boys that if you chase the money you'll always be unhappy. He's 19. He's got a lifetime."

Sullinger's attitude is in line, it appears, with that of North Carolina's Harrison Barnes. The two freshmen aren't being pulled by the money or the draft position. They want to win. And there's a good chance they'll be competing throughout the season for national player of the year honors.

For that to happen, Sullinger and the Buckeyes will have to keep up with the loaded Tar Heels (and Kentucky) in the national title chase. Sullinger's supporting cast might not be as deep or heralded as those other two powerhouses, but having shooting guard William Buford, point guard Aaron Craft and wing Deshaun Thomas in a much more contributing role makes the Bucks the overwhelming Big Ten favorites and a lock to be in the top five nationally in the preseason polls.

Having former Boston College forward Evan Ravenel eligible and the addition of McDonald's All-American center Amir Williams means Sullinger will be used more facing the basket.

The 6-foot-9 sophomore-to-be said he'll have some surprises in the fall, making reference to his face-up game. OSU assistant coach Jeff Boals said the Buckeyes will use Sullinger a little differently at times next season with the additions up front. His body is starting to trim down to a leaner 275 with 13 percent body fat, according to Boals. Satch Sullinger had Jared's weight at 262. Whatever the case, clearly Sullinger is working on cutting down his weight.

"His body is getting right," Jared's father said. "He turned down playing for USA Basketball this summer because he wants to be the leader for the freshmen coming into school. And he wants to work on his body. It's not the same body. He's cut. He's thick. He's got six-pack abs."

While Sullinger wants to be more of a versatile big man in the pros, his strength in college basketball is his base, a wide area that in the post can make it difficult to move.

"My mom says my butt makes me effective," Sullinger said. "It's made me the player I am because I can knock people off. But I've got to be more athletic. I've got to be quicker. I want to do things I didn't get a chance to do last year."

Sullinger is wired to handle the pressure of leading Ohio State and being a national player of the year contender with Barnes. He was in the race last season before BYU's Jimmer Fredette and Connecticut's Kemba Walker pushed ahead of the field. Fredette ended up sweeping the awards.

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Jared Sullinger and Thad Matta
AP Photo/Julio CortezThe football program is rife with controversy, but it's all smiles in the world of Buckeyes basketball.

Sullinger averaged 17.2 points and 10.1 rebounds as a freshman. He racked up 18 double-doubles and Ohio State won the Big Ten by two games (16-2), finishing 34-3 overall.

But the attention focused on Sullinger nationally doesn't compare to what is on him locally as a hometown hero. Yet there seems to be no fear that he would be involved in the sort of controversy that has embroiled the football program and former quarterback Terrelle Pryor, who was suspended for five games by the NCAA for extra benefits and is now being accused of making thousands of dollars from signing gear. Pryor has since said he won't return to school.

"Ohio State's name is being thrown around a lot, so we've got to stay on our toes," Sullinger said. "You're in the spotlight. It's not just our program, but every program has to be careful."

Sullinger dismissed the notion that any OSU basketball player would be caught trying to earn money off gear or an autograph.

"Honestly, with this basketball team, all our families -- pretty much we have enough family financial support. We're not going to have a problem with that," Sullinger said. "We know what's at stake, and with everything going on with the football team, we know what we can and can't do. So it's easy to say no."

Sullinger said he hasn't been approached by middlemen or entrepreneurs looking for a sale. His father concurred.

"Anybody who ever comes to him, he has told them they have to see me or Coach Matta," Satch Sullinger said. "If you want an autograph, it has to go through compliance."

Having multiple vehicles is also an issue for Pryor. Not so for the Sullinger family.

"I bought him a car and I submitted the paperwork," Satch Sullinger said. "It was the seventh car I've bought from that dealership, long before he got to Ohio State. I've bought four brand-new cars from that dealership. We're all aboveboard. We take pride in being aboveboard."

Satch said his son fully understands that he's not bigger than the game.

"He's going to do everything the right way. That's how I raise my sons."

And that's why those missed free throws bothered him so much. And why doing whatever it takes to get the Bucks back in a position to win a title is more important to Sullinger than wondering where he might have landed in this month's NBA draft.

"I stay in the moment," he said. "I'm focusing on the next game. Now it's the next workout. I'm about winning, not about where I'm projected in the NBA draft."

A year ago, Ohio State coach Thad Matta shocked assistant Kevin Kuwik by saying he wanted to do something to remember Kuwik's former girlfriend on the one-year anniversary of her death in a commuter plane crash outside of Buffalo.

So the Buckeyes wore patches with the flight number -- 3407 -- on their uniforms at Illinois on Feb. 14, two days after the anniversary but the first game Ohio State had that weekend.

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Evan Turner
Robin Alam/Icon SMIEvan Turner and Ohio State wore the "3407" patch last season against Illinois.

Patches on sports uniforms usually have shelf lives of the current season in which someone close to the team/program/franchise dies.

But the grieving doesn't stop after one year. And apparently neither does Matta's respect for Kuwik's loss and the continued fight for a cause that ensued. Ohio State will wear the patches again Saturday when the top-ranked and undefeated Buckeyes visit Wisconsin.

"Time goes on and everyone expects you to move on but it's a lot easier said than done," said Kuwik, who is Ohio State's video coordinator but is essentially one of the key assistant coaches. "I appreciate that Thad recognizes how important this is to me and to everyone else and he has stuck with us all the way through."

Kuwik was with Butler in 2009 when he told coach Brad Stevens he was going to Buffalo to meet his 30-year-old girlfriend, Princeton athletic administrator and former NCAA employee Lorin Maurer, in Buffalo for his brother's wedding. He couldn't wait for Maurer, who was more than likely going to be his fiancée, to share the moment with his family. Maurer boarded Continental flight 3407 from Newark to Buffalo on Feb. 12. The plane crashed before landing due to pilot error.

This was a life-altering moment, more so than when Kuwik had served two tours in Iraq looking for roadside bombs while a member of the Indiana National Guard. Kuwik, a Notre Dame graduate, is a clear leader, and he wasn't going to let a tragedy like this pass without something positive emerging -- like changing commuter flight regulations.

Kuwik, who then went to Ohio State last season to join Matta's staff, huddled with the victims' families, including Maurer's parents, as they formed a strong victims' lobbying group that got legislation passed last August to change law.

The National Transportation Safety Board's initial finding into the crash was in May 2009 and it detailed a number of safety gaps in regional airlines. The families of Continental Flight 3407 pushed for tougher standards. President Obama ultimately signed "The Airline Safety and FAA Extension Act of 2010" in August, arguably one of the more dramatic changes in airline legislation. The key components were changing rules regarding pilot fatigue and pilot qualifications for regional airlines.

Matta has said that this is an issue that affects everyone. He said he saw Kuwik last year tirelessly in his office and on bus trips, working the phones with senators' aides and congressional reps. And whenever Kuwik needed to go to Washington, D.C., to meet with a representative, Matta didn't hesitate to let him go.

Kuwik was in Washington last Tuesday to work with a number of new reps who were voted in last November.

"[Matta] has shown unbelievable support every time I've gone and I've been there over 35 times," Kuwik said. "He doesn't bat an eyelash. He just says, 'Go and get it done.' Honestly, it shows what kind of family we have here in this program. I couldn't have had two better places to be than Butler and Ohio State to go through this challenging time. I couldn't ask for two better head coaches."

Matta released a statement Friday through the 3407 families group saying:

"Obviously our basketball family has deeply felt this tragedy through what Kevin has faced, and we hope to honor those who were lost in a small way by wearing these patches. And I just continue to be amazed by the determination of the family members by fighting to make sure something positive comes out of this, as they have met with the president, gotten a new law passed, and even this week, went back to Washington to make sure that the law does not get weakened in any way possible. I know that the regional airlines are going to be safer for everyone who flies because of their efforts, and for that they have my deepest admiration and thanks."

Kuwik said now that the law is passed the families still have to ensure that it is enforced correctly. They were dealt an unusual blow to their cause, though, when Rep. Chris Lee (R-N.Y.) resigned this past week.

Kuwik said Lee, who represents the district in which the plane crash occurred, had been a strong advocate for the victims' families. He said Lee was working on creating a bipartisan caucus for aviation safety concerns prior to resigning.

What the families have to do now, according to Kuwik, is continue to lobby Congress to push the FAA to enact the regulations.

"We have to push the FAA to put pressure on them," Kuwik said. "We can't have [the airlines] weaken it with loopholes. The Senate essentially stayed the same but there was a change in the House, so we have to keep doing this to ensure that the high standards for the regional airline pilots continue."

Having the Buckeyes wear the patches Saturday will draw even more attention, considering the game is being nationally televised by ESPN at 2 p.m ET.

"Being from Ohio, there is no doubt that there is nothing bigger in this state than the Ohio State Buckeyes," Denise Perry of Loveland, Ohio, who lost her 27-year-old son Johnathan and his fiancée Nicole Korczykowski, said in a statement released by the families of 3407. "Throw in the fact that they are No. 1 in the country, and that we have family in Wisconsin, and this is a really big deal. But most importantly, what they are doing is another way to help our group get the word out about regional airline safety, and what all of our loved ones didn't know when they got on that plane, so that hopefully another family doesn't have to lose a son or a brother or any loved one because of a tragedy that was completely preventable."