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Aaron Craft, Deshaun Thomas Headline A Mostly Unproven Ohio State Roster

*Midnight Madness is over, and with it went the smoke machines, dunk contests and laser shows that kick off the season. College basketball begins now, and while the excitement still remains it’s time to peel the hype back and see who the nation’s best truly are. That’s why Dime has you covered with individual previews of the nation’s top 15 teams and a few others just outside, all over the course of the next few weeks. Today, Ohio State.

ATHLETICISM
This Ohio State team features several young and unproven players, which is scary enough to make or break the entire season. However, just as many young and unproven players tend to be, this group is very athletic. Sophomore Amir Williams, the likely starting center, displayed the instinct and athleticism necessary to be a shot-blocking force in limited time last season. He’s not going to draw any comparisons of Greg Oden or Jared Sullinger, but he can put the ball in the hoop from the block more times than not. Bench big Sam Thompson can jump plain out of the gym and would give the Buckeyes a scary-good offensive rebounding lineup by putting time in at the four with Williams at the five and Deshaun Thomas manning the three. All three players are accomplished offensive rebounders and this look would be a nightmare, for size and skills reasons both, for any team in the nation. Point guard Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith Jr. on the wing provide the ability to play the brand of defense that will set the pace of the game by forcing opposing teams inside. This bunch isn’t crazy athletic and won’t be a likely top 10 plays candidate, but they’re just athletic enough to take advantage of the skills present on the roster.
Grade: B

FUNDAMENTALS
When it comes to shooting as a fundamental, Thomas becomes Tim Duncan. The man he replaces as the Buckeye’s go-to-guy, Sullinger, was nowhere near as potent of an offensive threat as Thomas has shown the potential to be. In last year’s NCAA Tournament, he broke out in a huge way to the tune of 19 points per contest and showed he can carry the team when he’s hot. When he isn’t the hot hand, the technically sound and well-spaced perimeter game provided by Smith Jr. will keep this offense afloat. If the three isn’t being kind on a particular night, though, surgeon general Aaron Craft possesses a basketball IQ large enough that the entire team can tap into it. His work in spacing the floor as Thomas runs through screens to get open looks, or his ability to orchestrate a workable pick-and-roll game will be the hallmarks of what will be an efficient, if not flashy, OSU offense. Coach Thad Matta‘s teams are always well-coached and sound defensively and with Craft taking away opposing team’s best perimeter threat each game — this year will be no different in that regard.
Grade: A-

CHEMISTRY
The Buckeyes’ on-court fluidity this year starts and ends with point man Craft. The junior returns as the team’s resident chemist after a year in which he was named conference defensive player of the year, placed on the Lefty Driesell national all-defensive team and named a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award. He did all of this while averaging a shade under nine points and five assists per game. His lack of numbers is a non-factor in his national appeal because Craft is the consummate hard-work basketball player whose worth is on both ends. He’s the “glue guy” who isn’t afraid to be more than just a supporting player. The 2012-2013 version of Ohio State’s entire scheme runs through Craft first, and that’s great news for Matta.
Grade: A+

X-FACTOR
LaQuinton Ross. The rising college sophomore was once the No. 1-ranked high school sophomore and before spending a month of last season suspended for eligibility issues and the rest of the season deep in Matta’s doghouse. He once had the skill, and figuring out the answer to the question of whether he can conjure back the skills that put him in the same place Andrew Wiggins is currently in will define the Buckeyes’ season. He’s a 6-8 wing who, in high school, displayed the ability to score both inside and outside. He actually plays a little bit like a mix of Evan Turner and Thomas. If he puts it all together and works hard to seize his potential, that comparison is far from hyperbole. If he doesn’t reach his potential, he’s just another piece of bench fodder and the guy who didn’t play a single minute of March Madness last year. My gut says he’ll end up somewhere in the middle as a plus contributor to this squad. For every player who blows up his freshman year and ends up in the lottery is a recruit who has significant trouble adjusting to the college game. The latter often go on to contribute or blossom as time goes on. By becoming a solid starter, Ross would fulfill his status as X-factor. By being any more than that, he’ll be helping Thomas and Craft cut down nets later in the year.

BOTTOM LINE
This year’s rendition of Matta’s OSU team has the look and feel of a Final Four squad. So did last year’s, though, and that version had established leaders Sullinger and William Buford on it. Ohio State also must contend with playing perhaps the toughest schedule in the nation, kicking off the season with Marquette at the Carrier Classic before moving into matchups with Duke and Kansas, then moving into Big Ten conference play. This means they draw Michigan, Purdue, Michigan State and Indiana twice over the course of the season. They have the nation’s best leader and perimeter defender in Craft and one of a elite group of dominant scorers in Thomas to carry them through it. Beyond that, all they have is a collection of unproven players who will see more minutes than they ever have before. If a few of them step up to be more than just rotational pieces, the final four or even more is a near lock for this team. If they don’t, the skills of Craft and Thomas alone are enough to see them into a deep March run.

What do you think?

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