Once again, Ohio State will be sitting at the top of every preseason Big Ten prediction and somewhere in everyone’s top ten when the polls come out.
That’s what happens when you bring back your star center and your starting point guard, both of whom started as freshmen. Throw in a guy with a chance to become the program’s all-time leading scorer and a pair of big recruiting classes that have left a slew of talented freshmen and sophomores chomping at the bit to show what they are capable of doing of a basketball court.
There is good reason to consider the Buckeyes the Big Ten favorites and a Final Four contender.
But don’t underestimate what they lost last season with the graduation of David Lighty and Jon Diebler. I wrote about this last month so I won’t go into too much detail, but what made those two players so good was that they were talented enough players to be stars anywhere else in the Big Ten. They weren’t concerned about numbers, however. They knew what their roles were on last season’s Ohio State team and they embraced. There’s an argument to be made that Lighty and Diebler were the two best role players in the country last season.
Diebler was dangerous because he literally did not miss when his feet were set. The defense could not leave him. He also happened to be a terrific post-passer, so what Matta would do is have Diebler be the guy that fed Sullinger down low, forcing opponents to have to cover a longer distance to double-team him. What made Lighty so special was his versatility. Lighty could, quite literally, do anything on a basketball court. He could defend any position one through five. He could rebound the ball. He could stroke the three-ball. He could take the ball to the rim. He could find his teammates when he drew a second defender. Having a player that talented and that willing to put the team first was a godsend for Matta.
So who replaces him? According to Bob Baptist, Jordan Sibert, Lenzelle Smith Jr. and J.D. Weatherspoon are the three guys that are being challenged early in practice:
Smith, 6 feet 4, had surgery to repair a torn wrist ligament shortly after arriving at Ohio State 16 months ago, and by the time he was healthy enough to practice, “The train was already smoking and running,” he said. “It’s hard to catch a train that’s moving. You’ve got to meet it at the next stop. This year is the next stop. I’m finally on board and ready to go.”
The 6-6 Weatherspoon fell behind, too, when he got in academic trouble last fall quarter and was declared academically ineligible for the winter. He said he promised his parents it wouldn’t happen again and that “everything’s going fine with my grades now.”
Sibert, 6-4, got the most playing time of the three last season but was stuck behind Jon Diebler, who almost never left the floor. Sibert worked on his shot throughout the offseason, compacting his motion, as Diebler did, to achieve a quicker release. He will have a chance to fill Diebler’s role as a perimeter scorer. But he’ll have to play the other end of the floor, too.
Replacing those two will not be easy, but it will be essential if Ohio State wants to compete make another run at a Final Four.
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.