COLUMBUS - Thad Matta is like the director of a long-running, highly successful Broadway show - his cast members excel and then move on to more lucrative ventures, so he has to keep capable replacements in the pipeline.
For the basketball Buckeyes, the show must go on.
Matta held his third major casting call in the last three seasons when he started putting together a performing group for this season. After a dress rehearsal last night at Value City Arena against Walsh University, the Buckeyes make their debut next Thursday against Delaware State in historic St. John Arena.
"With so many new faces, the hard part a lot of times - one of the big challenges - is trying to get these guys to understand that college basketball is like anything in life, it's about getting better every single day," Matta said.
The Buckeyes lost seniors Jamar Butler, Othello Hunter, and Matt Terwilliger from last year's 24-13 team that went 10-8 in the Big Ten Conference. That team also had seven-foot freshman Kosta Koufos, the leading rebounder and second-leading scorer behind Butler, leave early for the NBA.
That leaves Matta an Ohio State group with no seniors on its roster and junior David Lighty as the only member of his class with any significant experience at this level. Freshmen, transfers, junior college players, and three sophomores who went through the wars last year make up the bulk of the roster.
"When you don't have a core of veteran players with vast experience, you find yourself backing up and explaining a lot," Matta said. "You become a little impatient because you want them to become a February team in mid-November. You just want to figure out how to get them there a little earlier."
Lighty started all 37 games a year ago and averaged nine points and 3.6 rebounds for the Buckeyes. Matta is not asking the Cleveland product to double his scoring output, but with the team's makeup, the leadership demands on Lighty are substantial.
"David plays a big role in this. He's a guy whose best attribute is how he comes to practice every day, and his motor never stops running. Sometimes that becomes contagious," Matta said. "He understands his role of becoming a fixture in the program as an example of what we're striving for."
Sophomores Evan Turner, Jon Diebler, and Dallas Lauderdale saw a lot of time last season, with Turner starting 30 games for the Buckeyes. Diebler needs to improve his 29 percent shooting from 3-point range, while Lauderdale will miss some time early after suffering a partial shoulder separation in a recent scrimmage.
Turner developed into one of Ohio State's top offensive threats late last season and can create his shot from just about anywhere on the floor.
"I think I developed a better understanding of the game toward the end of last year, and I was more in control," Turner said. "I'm more comfortable now and just anxious to getting out there and playing, and seeing this team play up to its potential."
The position in the middle where Koufos resided last season belongs to 7-1 freshman B.J. Mullens, one of the top high school players in the country a year ago. Matta said Mullens has the size, skills, and work ethic to become a dominant presence, much like Greg Oden, the seven-footer who led Ohio State's run to the NCAA title game two years ago.
"With B.J., I like the pace that he is on for improvement," Matta said. "And the great thing I love about B.J. is that he listens, and he asks for extra help. Greg was a lot like that. He was intuitive like that."
The point guard position will likely go to either junior college transfer Jeremie Simmons, freshman Anthony Crater, or junior P.J. Hill, who saw some mop-up minutes last year behind Butler. Simmons helped Mott Community College win two national titles and looks like the starter at this point.
"Jeremie has a little bit more experience, with two years at junior college, but I'll be interested to see how they all do," Matta said.
Freshman swingman William Buford from Libbey figures into the rotation, as do freshman guard Walter Offutt, junior center Kyle Madsen, and freshman forward Nikola Kecman from Serbia and Eastern Arizona College. Kecman first has to sit out 12 games due to an NCAA suspension for his involvement with a semi-professional team in Europe.
"We're making some gains in some areas," Matta said as his team went through its final practice sessions before last night's exhibition game.
"For these guys, it's the understanding of the little things, and eventually those things have got to become a part of who you are, and you have to understand the importance of them. That's what we're striving for right now - the minute details."
With so many new players, Matta is still wrangling over whether to rely primarily on a man-to-man defense, a zone, or a combination of the two. He also said he is some time away from settling on any kind of set starting group.
"There are so many things I want to see them do - do we play together, do we play off of each other, how hard do we play, how do we handle adversity, who takes charge and says this is what we need," Matta said. "And just see guys doing what they are supposed to do."
The Buckeyes, who were the Big Ten regular season champions in 2005--2006 and 2006--2007, open Big Ten play on Dec. 31 at home against Iowa.
"I want to play Ohio State basketball, get the ball moving, and get up and down the floor as much as we can," Matta said.
"This group has worked extremely hard throughout the course of the summer and into the fall, but there's still so many unknowns still. We'll have to see what happens, but we've made some gains in some areas."
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