UNION, N.J. — The knock on Ohio State for much of the 2012-2013 season was that they relied far too much on Deshaun Thomas on the offensive end of the floor. They didn’t have a second option, and on the nights when Thomas wasn’t hitting his shots, the Buckeyes weren’t winning games.
That changed down the stretch of the season, however.
Ohio State won their last five regular season games before taking home the Big Ten tournament title and coming within a game of making the Final Four, a feat that no one thought possible last January. The reason for that surge? The play of point guard Aaron Craft, who became a much more aggressive player on the offensive end of the floor over the last month-and-a-half of the season. He had 21 points and six assists in a regular season win over Michigan State. He went for 15 points, four assists and four steals in a win over Indiana. He had 20 points, nine assists and four steals against Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament semifinals. He went for 18 points and six assists — including the game-saving charge and game-winning three — in a win over Iowa State to reach the Sweet 16.
And if the Buckeyes are going to make a run at a Big Ten regular season title in 2013-2014, they are going to need that kind of play out of Craft the entire season.
“I’ve gotta continue to lead the team, the biggest thing [to improve on] would be being aggressive on offense,” Craft told NBCSports.com at the Nike Skills Academy on the campus of Kean University. “Without having a guy like DT where you can throw him the ball and let him do his thing. We’re going to have to find a way to create shots and get open ones, so if I can attack better, I think it will help us out.”
And therein lies the biggest question mark when it comes to the Buckeyes next season. As good as Craft is, his entire career at Ohio State has been built around his leadership and his defense. He’s not a dynamic playmaker, he’s a facilitator. He picks his spots well and he’s aggressive when he needs to be, but he hasn’t been the kind of point guard that can beat his man one-on-one and create a shot for himself or his team on any possession. He’s not Trey Burke.
But there were times where he was as effective as Burke was last season, especially late in the regular season, and it’s those moments that Craft will be looking to build off of.
“Guys like Kyrie [Irving] are always in attack mode,” Craft said. “It’s not always for him to score, it’s for everybody. It’s for his entire team, whether he’s getting a good shot or he’s helping somebody else get a good shot. Just trying to be aggressive and be in attack mode, not trying to go to fast but to make quick decisions. We can make adjustments from there.”
The good news is that there will be some talent surrounding Craft next season. Shannon Scott showed flashes of serious potential as a sophomore. Lenzelle Smith has some big scoring games. LaQuinton Ross played his way into some 2014 mock drafts with his play in the postseason.
None of those guys have shown any kind of consistency, however.
Which is ironic, really.
While Scott, Ross and Smith will be looking to improve their consistency next year, Craft, who has built a career out of consistently playing at a high level, will be looking to break out of his mold.
Who are the favorites to win a national title? Who can legitimately be called a contender? Who has the pieces to make a run to the Final Four? We’ll break that all down for you over the next three weeks in our Contender Series.
WHY THEY CAN WIN: Because they bring back the majority of the roster from a team that stormed through the Big East for a third straight season and went on to win the national title.
Josh Hart, an NBCSports.com preseason first-team all-american, is back. Kris Jenkins, the guy that his the national title-winning three six months ago, is back. Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges and Phil Booth all return, while Eric Paschall is eligible after sitting out last season as a transfer.
When you put all that together, what you have is a veteran team that has done nothing other than experience winning at an unbelievable level – the seniors on this team are 97-13 in three years with a 48-6 record in the Big East while winning three outright regular season titles, a Big East tournament title and a national title.
Put another way, the Wildcats return better than 70 percent of the scoring and rebounding from last year’s national title team, putting them in the best position to repeat as national champions since Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer all decided to return to Florida and make a run at winning back-to-back titles in 2006-07.
And if the Wildcats can make that happen, it will be a direct result of the versatility that Jay Wright will have on display.
With Daniel Ochefu graduating and Omari Spellman being ruled ineligible, Villanova is going to play a lot of small-ball this season. I wouldn’t be surprised – in fact, I hope it’s the case – if we see Villanova use a Golden State-esque ‘Death Lineup’, where Jenkins plays as their “center” with Hart, Bridges and Paschall on the floor with him. That team would be able to play so many different styles defensively while creating mismatches all over the offensive end of the floor.
For that to work, Hart would have to be a more consistent perimeter shooter while Bridges would need to take a major step forward in his offensive development. We would also need to see Darryl Reynolds prove that he can handle playing 25-30 minutes as the lone big man on the floor for an entire season, something he did adequately in a three-game sample last year.
So there are some things that head coach Jay Wright will have to spend the preseason working out.
But there’s no reason to believe he won’t be able to get that done.
And there’s no reason to believe that Villanova won’t be getting right back to their winning ways.
After all, no one on this roster has ever lost more than five games in a season at Villanova. They don’t know what losing is.
WHY THEY WON’T WIN: The way I see it, there are three reasons to be concerned about this Villanova team.
The first is the point guard spot. Losing Ryan Arcidiacono is a major blow, one that many fans may not truly appreciate. Arch was a starter from Day 1 for the Wildcats, spending the last four seasons as an extension of Jay Wright on the floor. It’s not a coincidence that Arch’s arrival coincided with the resurgence of Villanova as a nationally relevant program that could win conference championships and national titles. Wright and Arch had such a strong relationship that teammates jokingly referred to them as father and son. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to refer to the last four years as the ‘Arch Era’.
That’s how important he was to this program.
Now, Jalen Brunson is good. I’m not saying that he isn’t. He does have some of the same length and athleticism question marks that Arch had, and there are valid concerns about his ability to consistently make plays against elite defenders because of it, but there shouldn’t be any doubting his basketball savvy, his intelligence on the floor or his ability to lead. One NBA scout told me this summer that Brunson is as intelligent of a prospect, in terms of basketball IQ, as he’s ever evaluated. He should be fine, but going from being a secondary point guard as a freshman to the only point guard on the roster of a national title contender as a sophomore is a major leap to make.
I’m also concerned about whether or not Villanova took advantage of the lack of talent in the college game last season. The 2015-16 season was a weird year. Stars weren’t clustered at programs around the country. The nation’s elite freshmen were spread out at programs like LSU, Cal, Mississippi State and Marquette, and that’s before you consider the fact that the class just wasn’t all that good. The question we had about the Wildcats entering the year was whether or not they would be able to beat teams that were chock-full of elite, NBA-caliber talent, and they didn’t necessarily prove that wrong during their run to the title.
The reason Coach K went from avoiding one-and-done prospects to trying to rebuild his roster every year with elite freshmen is that, in basketball, the team with the best players is going to win the majority of the time. Talent matters more in this sport than just about any other, and when you compare Villanova’s roster to, say, Duke or Kentucky or Kansas, it’s pretty obvious which team has more talent.
That said, I’ll admit I’m picking nits when discussing the issue of Villanova’s talent and, to a point, their point guard question marks.
But there is one major issue with Villanova, and I think even the most rabid Wildcat fan will agree with me: Their front court.
Like Arch, I don’t think the value that Daniel Ochefu provided this team can be shown in a box score. His size allowed him to defend opposing bigs in the post and act as a rim protector when Villanova’s perimeter defenders pressured or gambled for steals. His ability to score on the block kept defenses honest and allowed him to work as a pressure release for the Villanova guards; 1-on-1 on the block, and Ochefu was probably going to draw a foul or get two points.
Villanova probably didn’t have that guy heading into the season, and they certainly don’t now that Omari Spellman is being forced to redshirt.
That leaves Darryl Reynolds, who is something of an enigma. He’s spent the last three seasons being little more than a guy that spelled Ochefu or played when he had fouls. But in three games where Ochefu was injured last season, Reynolds was good, averaging 9.0 points and 10.6 boards. I don’t know that he’ll ever be the low-post presence that Ochefu was, but if guys like Josh Hart, Mikal Bridges and Eric Paschall take a step forward in their development on the offensive end, Villanova may not need him to be.
PREDICTION: With all due respect to Xavier, a team that has the talent to be a top ten team and make a Final Four, I don’t think there’s any doubt that Villanova is the heavy-favorite to win the Big East for the fourth straight season.
The Wildcats will be a consensus preseason top five team, and there will be rankings where they end up as high as No. 2 in the country. It’s almost as if Villanova is playing with house money this season. They shed their early-exit demons with last year’s national title, they got Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins back for another season and they have a team that is good enough to get to a Final Four and make a run at being the first team to repeat in a decade.
I hope Villanova fans can appreciate what they’re going to be able to watch this season.
A ride like this doesn’t happen all that often.
CBT Podcast: Louisville’s Notice of Allegations, breaking down elite freshmen
In the latest episode of the NBCSports.com College Basketball Talk podcast, I’m joined by Sam Vecenie of the Sporting News to talk about the Notice of Allegations that the NCAA handed down to Louisville as well as taking a deep dive into the freshmen class and some of the elite NBA Draft prospects.
As always, you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Audioboom or anywhere else that podcasts are given away for free.
If you enjoy what you hear on this podcast, please rate and review the podcast, as it will help us reach more listeners.
Last month, the NBA and NBA Players’ Association reportedly began discussing a new collective bargaining agreement.
On Thursday night, Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports’ The Vertical reported that a “deal was within sight” as the two sides have moved closer and closer in negotiations.
One of the consistent issues over the years has been one-and-done rule, which was instituted during the 2005 negotiations, requiring a prospective draftee to be 19 years old and be one year removed from his high school graduating class.
According to Wojnarowski, the one-and-done rule will remain intact in the new CBA agreement.
Among items that will be in final CBA agreement: NBA's "one-and-done" college draft rule will remain in place, sources tell @TheVertical.
Since taking over the league in February 2014, NBA commissioner Adam Silver had made increasing the age limit to 20 years old a priority. So, this reported news is clearly a comprise on the side of himself and the owners; a group of 30 executives who would rather have another year of scouting and information on a prospect rather than taking a potential gamble on a teenager in the first round.
For college basketball, things remain relatively the same. Some players will go for the money, whether pundits like it or not — remember, every early entry should be viewed on a case-by-case basis. But recent rule changes have benefited college players. Pushing the deadline back saw tons and tons of players declare for the 2016 NBA Draft, which left many coaches in precautions situations as they sweated over what next year’s roster was going to look like. But it was beneficial to the players, providing them a thorough process of interviews, workouts and, in some cases, a spot in the NBA Draft Combine. This gave them the resources and insight to make informed opinions about their future, whether that is finding out that their stock is likely at its highest, or getting the proper critiques on what they need to improve upon before turning pro.