By Bob Baptist
COLUMBUS: Ohio State’s scoring average dropped by 4½ points from the previous season, yet the Buckeyes almost made it to the Final Four last spring for the second year in a row.
Now the question is, how are the Buckeyes going to score without the guy who scored nearly 30 percent of those points last season, and nearly twice as many as anyone else?
No one has any answers yet, but they will start becoming evident this weekend when the Buckeyes play their first game against Morgan State on Saturday at Value City Arena.
Coach Thad Matta does not know if anyone will average 20 points, as Deshaun Thomas did last season, or what his high scorer will average. But with history as his guide, he doesn’t seem concerned.
“We’ve lost great players before” and haven’t missed a beat, Matta said, mentioning the departures of Evan Turner, Jared Sullinger and William Buford in recent years. The Buckeyes are the only Division I program to reach the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament each of the past four seasons.
Without Thomas to throw the ball to, Matta said, “I think it has to be collective just in terms of how we play, maybe sharing the ball a little bit more, more movement offensively, creating different matchups throughout the course of the shot clock.”
Guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. said the Buckeyes have played “some of the best team basketball I’ve seen in my four years here” during preseason practices.
Besides Thomas and reserve center Evan Ravenel, everyone from last season is back, plus freshmen Marc Loving and Kam Williams, who is recovering from mononucleosis that has kept him out of practice.
Former Buckeyes player and current Big Ten Network analyst Jim Jackson wants to know who will become the go-to guy.
“The question from the Ohio State perspective is, ‘OK, when we need a tough basket [inside], who are we going to get it from?’ ” Jackson said. “When you’re playing against Michigan, Michigan State, Iowa, which have size inside, how are we going to get those points? Are those off second shots? Dribble-drive penetration? Transition?
“Thad has to tinker with that a little bit.”
Point guard Aaron Craft, the team’s second-leading scorer last season with a 10-point average, acknowledged that “we’re going to have to adapt” on the fly.
“The first few games probably aren’t going to be the greatest, but we’ll figure it out,” he said. “I really love our defense right now, and that’s going to lead to our offense. If we get that going, I think we’ll figure out the other end.”
Purdue coach Matt Painter said at Big Ten media day last week that Ohio State has the “potential to be one of the best defensive teams in the country.” Former Illinois guard Stephen Bardo, a former ESPN analyst who joins the Big Ten Network this season, thinks the Buckeyes will extend their defense to try to create more turnovers and baskets off them.
“They looked really slow to me last year,” Bardo said. “I think they’ll be the exact opposite of that, and a lot more entertaining to watch.”