Top 25 Countdown: No. 7 Ohio State Buckeyes

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Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Top 25, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Last Season: 31-8, 13-5 Big Ten (t-1st); Lost in the Final Four to Kansas

Head Coach: Thad Matta

Key Losses: Jared Sullinger, William Buford

Newcomers: Amedeo Della Valle

Projected Lineup:

G: Aaron Craft, Jr.
G: Lenzelle Smith Jr, Jr.
F: Sam Thompson, So.
F: Deshaun Thomas, Jr.
C: Amir Williams, So.
Bench: LaQuinton Ross, So.; Evan Ravenel, Sr., Shannon Scott, So.

Outlook: Thad Matta’s team is going to have their work cut out for them this season. Not only are they losing William Buford, who spent the last four seasons as one of the nation’s most consistently underrated wing scorers, but Jared Sullinger also made the decision to head to the NBA. And as much as it will hurt to lose a guy that averaged 17.5 points and 9.2 rebounds, what will be even more difficult for the Buckeyes to adjust to is not having a post presence that commands a double-team every single time he touches the ball.

The past two years, everything Ohio State has done offensively was built around Sullinger’s presence on the blocks. It will be quite the adjustment without him.

That’s not to say that Ohio State doesn’t have any talent left on their roster, because that certainly isn’t the case. In fact, depending on where you are looking, Matta has two preseason all-americans at his disposal.

The first name is one that everyone in the country should be familiar with by now: Aaron Craft. Craft has spent two his first two years in Columbus reminding us what the point guard position used to be played like. He’s a pretty good shooter, he’s a capable penetrator and he’s certainly able to create shots off the dribble, but his real strength is two-fold — Craft is an absolutely tenacious on-the-ball defender, to the point that he can change a game with the way that he applies ball-pressure, and he’s an ideal facilitator. Not to be overly cliche, but Craft is a coach on the floor that understands what each member of his team is supposed to be doing and can get the ball where it needs to be and when it needs to be there. It sounds simple, but it is a vital skill to have.

Craft is joined by Deshaun Thomas, who, for the first time in his collegiate career, will be the focal point of Ohio State’s offensive attack. Thomas has always been able to score the ball, and even averaged 15.9 points last season, but it will be interesting to see what happens when he also becomes to focal point of a defensive game-plan every night. Will he be a willing passer? Will he be able to wait for shot opportunities within the flow of the offense, or is he going to end up forcing the issue to often?

It will be interesting to see how Matta uses Thomas. The past two years, he’s been primarily a perimeter option, which was to his advantage as Thomas was mostly guarded by power forwards that were unable to stay with him on the perimeter. With Sullinger gone, will the 6-foot-7 combo-forward see more post touches?

Beyond those two, Ohio State has plenty of talent, but also plenty of question marks.

The biggest issue that Matta will need to address is where he finds secondary scoring options. Craft has never really been an offensive-minded player, but he will need to make that more of a focus this season. That still won’t be enough. Two guys that see primed for the role: Lenzelle Smith Jr. and LaQuinton Ross. Smith put together some big games in big moments — he had 28 in a win over Indiana, 17 and 12 boards in a win against Michigan, 35 combined points against Syracuse and Kansas in the NCAA tournament — but he was obscenely streaky last year, averaging just 6.8 points on the season.

Ross is a big-time talent. At one point in his early high school career, Ross was considered to be the best prospect in the country. But he’s had a myriad of issues since then and has never quite lived up to the expectations. He only saw action in nine games as a freshman, and even took to twitter to voice his displeasure with the lack of playing time.

Those two need to be able to provide somewhere around 22-24 points on a nightly basis for the Buckeyes.

There rest of Ohio State’s rotation will be made up of a trio of sophomores — athletic small forward Sam Thompson, backup point guard Shannon Scott and promising big man Amir Williams — as well as veteran center Evan Ravenel.

Predictions?: Ohio State has two proven stars on their roster, surrounded by a slew of highly ranked recruits that are yet to prove themselves on the collegiate level. Does that remind you of anyone? Like, I don’t know, Kansas from last season? This year’s Buckeyes and last year’s Jayhawks are quite different teams, but the situations are eerily reminiscent. We know how good Craft and Thomas can be, and if they live up to expectations while the Ohio State role players can step up and fill their assigned roles the same way Elijah Johnson, Jeff Withey and Travis Releford did for Kansas last season, Matta’s team will be just fine.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

Bluiett back to Xavier for senior season

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Xavier lost one significant piece to the professional ranks this spring, but will return another.

Trevon Bluiett, the team’s leading scorer last year, announced via social media that he will be back to play his senior season with the Musketeers.

Chris Mack will return the bulk of a roster that struggled February only to make a run to the Elite Eight, but getting Bluiett for a final season makes the Musketeers especially dangerous. The 6-foot-6 Bluiett scored a team-high 18.5 points per game last year while also putting up 5.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists per night. He shot 37.1 percent from 3-point range, the second-best mark on the team. His return, even with point guard Edmond Sumner going pro amid his ACL tear recovery, makes Xavier one of the top teams in the Big East heading into the 2017-18 season.

Bluiett himself is enough to keep Xavier relevant in the league, but when he’s coupled with the likes of returners JP Macura, Sean O’Mara and Quentin Goodwin, plus a recruiting class featuring two four-star prospects, it’s not difficult to see a path for Mack’s group to a place where they can compete with the likes of Villanova and Seton Hall atop the league.

Welsh and Holiday returning to UCLA

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UCLA sustained some major, though expected, attrition from its roster this spring. On Tuesday, the Bruins announced a pair of significant contributors that will be back.

Thomas Welsh and Aaron Holiday will both return next season to the UCLA program, according to the school.

Welsh, a 7-foot center, averaged 10.8 points and 8.7 rebounds as a senior last year for the Bruins. He shot 58.5 percent from the floor and blocked 1.2 shots per game, and decided to declare for the NBA Draft without an agent before ultimately deciding to return to Westwood.

“Thomas has worked hard all spring,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said in a statement. “We supported him testing the NBA waters and are excited to have him returning for his senior year. He simply continues to develop each and every season.

“Thomas will be one of the top centers in college basketball next year and, undoubtedly, has a great chance to be a first-round pick in next season’s draft.”

The 6-foot-1 Holiday averaged 12.3 points and 4.4 assists last season while sharing a backcourt with Lonzo Ball, whose departure, along with those of TJ Leaf, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton will leave UCLA with a very different look next season. The positive results, however, may not fluctuate too significantly with Welsh and Holiday coming back to play alongside two five-star recruits, Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands, as well as Lonzo’s younger brother LiAngelo.

West Virginia’s Macon forgoing final year

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West Virginia’s attempt to dethrone Kansas atop the Big 12 took a bit of a hit Tuesday.

Elijah Macon, a 6-foot-9 forward, announced his decision to forego a fifth year in Morgantown in order to pursue a professional career.

“First things first I would like to say thank you Bob Huggins and Erik Martin for believing in a young 15-year-old boy growing up from the Southside of Columbus, OH losing my mother and still having you guys push me to be the man I have become,” Macon said according to the school. “I can do nothing but thank you for all you and Mountaineer Nation (have) done for me. Unfortunately, I will not be returning for my senior season at WVU and instead sign with a(n) agent and play professional basketball. Thank you guys for all the love and support!”

Macon wasn’t a major contributor for the Mountaineers last season, averaging 6.3 points and 4.2 rebounds in 16 minutes per game, but he was an experienced and tough player who was well-versed in Huggins’ style and demands. Given the pace that the newly-fashioned Press Virginia plays at, depth is also paramount for them as a program.

Macon’s departure, though, may have been expected or at least partly anticipated by West Virginia. The Mountaineers signed five players in its most recent recruiting class, putting them one over their allotment of 13, so something had to give. West VIrginia will stay have interior depth, anchored by junior Esa Ahmad, so the loss of Macon is one they likely can weather, even if it may take some time to acclimate the newcomers.

“Elijah is in the process of completing classes during this summer school period that ends June 2 and will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in August,” Huggins said in a statement released by the school. “I respect his decision to become a professional basketball player and to go make money to support his family. He had a great four years with us, and we wish him nothing but the best.”

Key returning to Alabama for sophomore season

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Alabama’s top scorer is returning to school.

Braxton Key has withdrawn his name from the NBA draft and will be back with the Tide for his sophomore season, the school announced Tuesday.

“I spoke to coach Avery (Johnson) just over a week ago and informed him of my decision to withdraw my name from the NBA Draft and return to the University of Alabama for my sophomore season,” Key said in a statement. “I made that official when I sent my paperwork to the NBA league office Monday morning. I want to express my appreciation to my teammates, Coach Johnson and the entire coaching staff for giving me their full support while I went through this process.

“I am excited for the future of the Alabama basketball program and looking forward to getting to work as we prepare for next season. Roll Tide and Buckle Up!”

The 6-foot-8 forward averaged 12 points and 5.7 rebounds per game while shooting 43.3 percent from the field as a freshman. He gives Alabama four returning starts to pair with one of the country’s highest-regarded recruiting classes, headlined by five-star guard Collin Sexton. The Tide will also have an eligible Daniel Giddens, who previously transferred in from Ohio State.

Key didn’t seem likely to stay in the NBA draft, especially after he wasn’t invited to the combine, but his ultimate decision is a huge one for Avery Johnson as he looks to break through in his third season in Tuscaloosa with his first NCAA tournament appearance. 

Report: Justin Jackson to return to Maryland

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Maryland forward Justin Jackson is expected to return to school for his sophomore season, according to a report from FanRag Sports.

Jackson is an intriguing talent, a 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-3 wingspan that shoots 44 percent from three. But he’s also still developing his offensive game and consistency on the defensive end of the floor, which is why he was projected as a second round pick in this year’s draft.

With Jackson back in the fold, Maryland is a borderline top 25 team. They lost Melo Trimble to the professional ranks, but that’s something that Mark Turgeon has prepared for. With a sophomore class that also includes highly-regarded point guard Anthony Cowan and sharp-shooter Kevin Huerter, the Terps have a promising season ahead of them.