2013-2014 Season Preview: No. 10 Ohio State Buckeyes

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All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. Check back throughout the day, as we’ll be posting three or four preview items every day.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. The rest of our Top 25 Countdown can be found here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Last Season: 29-8, 13-5 Big Ten (t-2nd); Lost in the Elite 8 to Wichita State

Head Coach: Thad Matta (10th season at Ohio State: 250-73 overall, 111-45 Big Ten)

Key Losses: Deshaun Thomas, Evan Ravenel

Newcomers: Marc Loving, Kameron Williams

Projected Lineup

G: Aaron Craft, Sr.
G: Lenzelle Smith, Sr.
F: Sam Thompson, Jr.
F: LaQuinton Ross, Jr.
C: Amir Williams, Jr.
Bench: Shannon Scott, Jr.; Trey McDonald, Jr.; Marc Loving, Fr.; Kameron Williams, Fr.

They’ll be good because …: Aaron Craft, who has made a career out of being one of the most polarizing players in the country, is back for his senior season. Craft is a short, white point guard that lacks vertical explosiveness and wins with every clichéd intangible ever uttered by a broadcaster. He plays the game the right way, he’s gritty, he’s got a high basketball IQ. Craft needs to be more consistent and more aggressive as a playmaker this season, whether he’s looking to score or create. The same can be said for LaQuinton Ross, and there’s reason to believe he can help replace the output of Deshaun Thomas. Ross came on strong late in the year, and capped it by averaging 17.7 points in the last three games of Ohio State’s run to the Elite 8. That included the game-winner against Arizona you see below.

What Craft does best, however, is anchor a perimeter that will be absolutely stifling at times this season. He’s probably the best on-ball defender in the country, capable of turning a trip into Columbus into a nightmare for opposing point guards. Sam Thompson can shut down big wings with his length and athleticism, and back-up point guard Shannon Scott has proven himself to be quite the playmaker on the defensive end. One way to counteract the Buckeye’s question marks in the paint is to apply enough pressure on the perimeter to takeaway entry passes.

source:
Reuters

But they might disappoint because …: Ohio State is going to have to find someone to replace the 19.8 points that Deshaun Thomas averaged a season ago as the Buckeye’s go-to scorer. Ross will be the popular pick heading into the season, as he fits that shoot-first, combo-forward role that Thomas played perfectly. But here’s the problem: Ohio State’s issue last season was that they struggled to establish a consistent secondary scoring threat until late in the year, when Craft and then Ross took over that role. Are those two prepared to become the first and second options offensively? And will a team relying on LaQuinton Ross and Aaron Craft for points be able to compete for the Final Four and the Big Ten crown?

The other issue with the Buckeyes is in the front court, where they have very little depth after Evan Ravenel’s graduation. Amir Williams is a talented kid, but he’s been anything but a hard-worker during his time at Ohio State. He’s been an effective shot-blocker and gotten to the glass fairly well in limited minutes, and the Buckeyes will need much more of that from him this year. Why? Because Trey McDonald, who played in 19 games as a sophomore, will be Matta’s back up big man, and the forward trio of Ross, Thompson and Marc Loving is not exactly what you would call powerful. Rebounding and interior defense will be something Ohio State focuses on.

Outlook: Ohio State is generally thought of as a football school where basketball is considered secondary, a distraction to get fans through a long, cold winter and to spring practices. But the Buckeyes have one of the strongest, healthiest, basketball brands not just in the Big Ten, but in the country. They won at least a share of the Big Ten title for three straight seasons before finishing second last year. They’ve won 94 games in the Aaron Craft era, making a Sweet 16, an Elite 8 and a Final Four. It would likely surprise you to find out that Ohio State was ineligible for the 2005 NCAA tournament due to self-imposed sanctions.

I make this point because the Buckeyes, at this point, deserve the benefit of the doubt. This doesn’t look like a roster that deserves to be ranked in the top ten, just like last year’s roster didn’t look like it deserved to be ranked in the top ten. But by the time that the season ended, Ohio State had won 13 Big Ten games, finished second in the best conference in the country, earned themselves a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament and played their way into the Elite 8. There are a few question marks on this roster, but if Ohio State can get consistent enough play from their defense, I believe Ohio State will continue to find a way to win games. Anything less than a top four seed in the tournament and a top four finish in the Big Ten would be disappointing.

USC lands four-star 2018 guard Elijah Weaver

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USC landed an important commitment for its future on Monday night as four-star Class of 2018 guard Elijah Weaver.

Regarded as the No. 35 overall prospect in the Rivals’ national Class of 2018 rankings, the 6-foot-5 Weaver gives the Trojans a floor leader to build around for the future as he provides great size in the backcourt. Capable of playing multiple guard spots, Weaver has a lot of upside for a program that has done a very solid job of developing backcourt talent under head coach Andy Enfield.

Weaver’s commitment is also important for the Trojans because it comes despite the looming FBI investigation that the program is dealing with thanks to former assistant coach Tony Bland. USC had recently lost a four-star commitment from forward J’Raan Brooks, so the commitment of Weaver is a huge momentum boost for them as they get right back on track in the Class of 2018.

With Weaver in the mix, USC now owns three four-star pledges in the 2018 class as he joins four-star forward Taeshon Cherry and four-star guard Kevin Porter.

Jim Larranaga believes he’s ‘Coach-3’ in FBI investigation

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Despite losing key contributors Davon Reed and Kamari Murphy from last season’s NCAA tournament team, the Miami Hurricanes are expected to be a player both within the ACC and nationally this season. But instead of having the focus solely on the likes of JaQuan Newton, Bruce Brown and Lonnie Walker, Jim Larrañaga’s program is also having to deal with the impact of the ongoing FBI investigation into corruption and fraud in college basketball.

While no one connected to the Miami men’s basketball program was arrested last month, the program is referenced in the FBI report. On Monday, Larrañaga stated during a press conference that he believes that he is “Coach-3” in the FBI report. Larrañaga also maintained his innocence, saying that he had done nothing wrong while also being thankful that none of his assistant coaches were involved.

“It’s been a strain, physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually,” Larrañaga said according to the Palm Beach Post. “It’s something that’s there. I have to deal with it. I have the support of my wife and a wonderful family. I have the support of the university, my staff and players.”

According to the FBI report, “Coach-3” requested that payments totaling $150,000 be funneled to “Player-12” in order to ensure his commitment to their university. It has been reported that “Player-12” was 2018 five-star prospect Nassir Little, who has also stated that he had done nothing wrong. Two of the schools recruiting Little at the time, Arizona and Miami, have been entangled in the FBI investigation to varying degrees.

While Miami has not had anyone connected to its program arrested, Arizona assistant coach Emmanuel “Book” Richardson was one of the four Division I coaches were were indicted. As a result Little removed both Arizona and Miami from consideration before ultimately committing to North Carolina earlier this month.

There’s no telling what the FBI investigation will ultimately uncover, which for the schools involved could take a heavy toll not only for the 2017-18 season but for future years as well. The FBI case has been comparatively quiet since the first set of indictments, with future moves likely to be influenced by what authorities learn from the ten individuals named in the first announcement.

Miles Bridges discusses being offered money during recruiting process

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With the FBI launching an investigation into corruption and fraud in college basketball last month, the entire sport has found itself under the microscope. Ten people, including four Division I assistant coaches, were arrested and there’s no telling just how long the FBI’s investigation will last or what information it will produce.

Michigan State forward Miles Bridges is considered by many to be the leading candidate for national Player of the Yeah honors, and he had the opportunity to turn pro after a good freshman season. But Bridges made the decision to return to East Lansing, and with that comes questions as to why he would do that as opposed to cashing in on his NBA potential as soon as possible.

In an interview with Brendan Quinn of The Athletic (subscription required) Bridges discussed a host of issues, including being offered money by people while going through the recruiting process.

“I mean, if you get caught, that might be the end of your career. I wanted to play in college really bad,” Bridges told Quinn. “I don’t know — materialistic things, they don’t really get to me. So when people were offering me money, I would say no right away, because I wanted to be able to live out my college experience. But really, I don’t know, it is hard, especially because I was so young at the time — 17.”

Given the ongoing investigation, high-profile players and teams will be on the receiving end of increased scrutiny even if they aren’t part of the FBI probe. It’s an unfair situation for a player like Bridges to deal with, as even in the actual cases of alleged wrongdoing the players themselves are essentially commodities whose services are being auctioned as opposed to the main characters looking to cash in.

Unfortunately, due to recent events a decision like the one made by Bridges will result in some questioning whether or not the player received something from the school or another entity/individual. And that’s a tough — and unfair — thing for a young player to have to deal with.

Broken hand sidelines North Carolina PG Joel Berry II

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North Carolina’s defense of its national title will likely begin without its most important player, as it was announced on Monday that senior point guard Joel Berry II will miss approximately four weeks due to a broken bone in his right hand.

Berry started at the point each of the last two seasons, earning Most Outstanding Player honors in April as the Tar Heels defeated Gonzaga to win the national title. As a junior, Berry averaged 14.7 points, 3.6 assists and 3.1 rebounds per game and started 37 of the 38 games in which he played. Berry shot 42.6 percent from the field and 38.3 percent from three, with the latter percentage being the best on team amongst players who attempted at least two three-pointers per game.

Berry was named an NBC Sports Preseason Third-Team All-American in late September.

With Berry out of the lineup, North Carolina loses its floor general as well as one of their top perimeter shooters. Sophomore Seventh Woods and freshman Jalek Felton become more important options at the point as a result of Berry’s injury, and the team doesn’t lack for perimeter shooters either with Cameron Johnson, Brandon Robinson, Kenny Williams and freshman Andrew Platek all being capable of helping to pick up the slack.

North Carolina opens its regular season on November 10 against Northern Iowa.

Bill Self’s stance on Kansas/Missouri series remains unchanged

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Sunday afternoon in Kansas City, bitter rivals Kansas and Missouri got together on the basketball court for the first time since 2012, with the Showdown for Relief raising $1.75 million for recent hurricane victims. In what was an entertaining game, the Jayhawks won by the final score of 93-87 with point guard Devonté Graham leading the way for the winners with 25 points and ten rebounds.

Kansas finished the game with five players in double figures, including Mississippi State transfer Malik Newman (17 points) and center Udoka Azubuike (16). On the other side freshman Michael Porter Jr. paced four Tigers in double figures with 21 points while younger brother Jontay grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds off the bench.

However despite the excitement for the two rivals being on the same court in any capacity, Sunday’s meeting was different given the circumstances. Following the game Kansas head coach Bill Self was asked about the possibility of the two teams meeting in a regular season game, and he maintained the stance he’s held since Missouri left the Big 12 for the SEC.

“I’m not going to say never, but I don’t think there’s been any change in our position as far as the university goes,” Self said following Sunday’s exhibition. “I’m the spokesman, I guess, on this but trust me, I’m not the only one that feels that way.”

While it would certainly benefit college basketball if Kansas and Missouri were to renew acquaintances down the line, it is understandable that Self — and maybe some others on the Kansas side of things — would have reservations. The programs, even with the arrival of Cuonzo Martin in Columbia and the freshman class led by the aforementioned Michael Porter Jr., are in different places right now.

The Jayhawks have their sights set on a 14th consecutive Big 12 title and a run at their first national title since 2008, Missouri is looking to fast-track a rebuilding process after struggling mightily under former head coach Kim Anderson. Yet with that being said, the state of the two athletic departments during realignment likely has more to do with the teams not playing each other.

Missouri was a school with options earlier this decade before joining the SEC, but that was not the case for Kansas. Had the Big 12 broken up as some believed would be the case, where would the Jayhawks have landed? Fortunately for the school the Big 12 survived the realignment craze, losing four schools (Missouri and Texas A&M to the SEC, Colorado to the Pac-12 and Nebraska to the Big Ten) and adding TCU and West Virginia to get their membership number to ten.

Given that, the best bet for college basketball fans who want to see this rivalry played during the regular season may be to hope for the programs wind up in the same in-season tournament. Even better, how about the same NCAA tournament region?