COLUMBUS, Ohio – At least for a while, everyone will be talking about who's not playing for Ohio State in 2012-13.
Two-time All-American Jared Sullinger led the Buckeyes to a 65-11 record over the last two seasons and a trip to last year's Final Four before being drafted in the first round by the Boston Celtics. In his four seasons, William Buford tied the legendary Jerry Lucas as the third-highest scorer in school history with 1,990 points.
Now they're gone, but the Buckeyes have a lot of talented players coming back — and they're not worried replacing the departed two stars.
"Nobody's going to carry that load by themselves but we do have the pieces that can come out here and get the job done," guard Lenzelle Smith said.
The Buckeyes, who open practice on Friday, have three starters back — and several intriguing possibilities waiting in the wings.
Smith held down the fort as a defensive stopper at guard while Aaron Craft, considered by many the best returning point guard in the college game, is back to do his usual thing of shutting down opposing shooters, stealing the ball and getting it to teammates for buckets.
Plus, 6-foot-7 forward Deshaun Thomas disdained making an early exit to the NBA (like his classmate, Sullinger) and stuck around for at least another year with the Buckeyes.
Thomas, who averaged 16 points and 5.5 rebounds a game last season, says he came back to go a little bit farther than last year's team, which fell in the national semifinals to Kansas, 64-62.
"I knew one more year would be good for me," he said. "I came back just for one reason — to also go to the national championship and to win the Big Ten."
Coach Thad Matta has led the Buckeyes to three consecutive regular-season conference titles, three Big Ten tournament titles and two Final Fours in his glittering eight years (221-65) at Ohio State.
He's not looking for replacements for the departed Sullinger and Buford, but rather players who do their own thing.
"This team is going to need everybody doing their job," he said. "We don't need a superstar."
Unlike some years in the past where he's had a lot of talent but little depth or experience, Matta has a wealth of possibilities in the season that opens Nov. 9 against Marquette at the Carrier Classic onboard the U.S.S. Yorktown.
The top options underneath are 6-11 Amir Williams, who played exceedingly well in spot duty a year ago in the NCAAs as a freshman, along with 6-8 Evan Ravenel and 6-8 Trey McDonald. Williams is an aggressive and agile shot blocker who still needs to hone his offense. Ravenel is a solid back-up who does a little bit of everything well. McDonald will be seeing his first action after a year spent on the bench.
As the only senior on the roster, Ravenel has a good feel for his team.
"There's a lot of questions that need to be answered," he said. "Like, some say Craft hasn't really shot the ball. It's not that he didn't shoot it well, it was that he didn't shoot it enough. It wasn't in the game plan. This year we obviously need Craft to do some things. We will need Lenzelle, Amir, myself, Trey and everyone on the team to do more and those questions will be answered as the season goes on."
Smith developed into a dependable perimeter shot while Craft, who had offseason ankle surgery, scored most of his points on the break. Both need to become bigger offensive threats. Shannon Scott, a freshman back-up on the point a year ago, has worked hard on his shot and also will play a key role.
At forward, Thomas will spend time outside and inside. He's never met a shot he wouldn't take. Now he'll have to find a way to include his teammates in the flow and find the open man.
"If we all come together, everybody can shine," he said.
The possibilities are endless at the other forward spot. LaQuinton Ross was an acclaimed scorer in high school out of his New Jersey prep school. He never got close to playing a moment in a key situation last season because of a disinterest in defense. Now Matta praises the steps he's taken, while being wowed by his offensive gifts.
Ross relishes that other teams don't know anything about him.
"They won't be able to put me on the scouting report until late in the season," he said. "They can't go back and watch tape from last year. They have no idea."
Sam Thompson is also vying for playing time. A year ago Matta called the 6-7 slasher the most athletic player he's ever coached — which is saying something since he's had two national players of the year who were superlative athletes (David West at Xavier, Evan Turner at Ohio State).
Thompson can't wait to get out on the wing and run.
"Last year's team, I don't want to say we were slow on the offensive end, but we were methodical," he said. "We'd get the ball to Sully, or Will would do his thing. Other teams pretty much knew that. This year we've got a lot of fast, athletic guys who can beat their men off the dribble, can create for themselves, can create for other people. It's going to be a fun brand of basketball to watch. We'll be able to get up and down the court."
Craft downplays high preseason rankings in some publications while remaining optimistic of another season filled with trophies.
"There are no great teams in October. Everyone has to start off at square one," he said. "That's where we're going to do tomorrow. We're excited and we're ready for practice to start."
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