COLUMBUS — At least for a while, everyone will be talking about who's not playing for Ohio State in 2012-13.
Two-time All-American Jared Sullinger led the Buckeyes to a 65-11 record over the last two seasons and a trip to last year's Final Four before being drafted in the first round by the Boston Celtics. In his four seasons, William Buford tied the legendary Jerry Lucas as the third-highest scorer in school history with 1,990 points.
Now they're gone, but the Buckeyes have a lot of talented players coming back — and they're not worried about replacing the departed two stars.
“Nobody's going to carry that load by themselves, but we do have the pieces that can come out here and get the job done,” guard Lenzelle Smith said.
The Buckeyes, who open practice today, have three starters back — and several intriguing possibilities waiting in the wings.
Smith held down the fort as a defensive stopper at guard while Aaron Craft, considered by many the best returning point guard in the college game, is back to do his usual thing of shutting down opposing shooters, stealing the ball, and getting it to teammates for buckets.
Plus, 6-foot-7 forward Deshaun Thomas did not make an early exit to the NBA (like his classmate, Sullinger) and stuck around for at least another year with the Buckeyes.
Thomas, who averaged 16 points and 5.5 rebounds a game last season, says he came back to go a little bit farther than last year's team, which fell in the national semifinals to Kansas, 64-62.
“I knew one more year would be good for me,” he said. “I came back just for one reason — to also go to the national championship and to win the Big Ten.”
Coach Thad Matta has led the Buckeyes to three consecutive regular-season conference titles, three Big Ten tournament titles, and two Final Fours in his glittering eight years (221-65) at Ohio State.
He's not looking for replacements for the departed Sullinger and Buford, but rather players who do their own thing.
“This team is going to need everybody doing their job,” he said. “We don't need a superstar.”
Unlike some years in the past where he's had a lot of talent but little depth or experience, Matta has a wealth of possibilities in the season that opens Nov. 9 against Marquette at the Carrier Classic onboard the U.S.S. Yorktown.
The top options underneath are 6-11 Amir Williams, who played exceedingly well in spot duty a year ago in the NCAAs as a freshman, along with 6-8 Evan Ravenel and 6-8 Trey McDonald. Williams is an aggressive and agile shot blocker who still needs to hone his offense. Ravenel is a solid back-up who does a little bit of everything well. McDonald will be seeing his first action after a year spent on the bench.
As the only senior on the roster, Ravenel has a good feel for his team.
“There's a lot of questions that need to be answered,” he said. “Like, some say Craft hasn't really shot the ball. It's not that he didn't shoot it well, it was that he didn't shoot it enough. It wasn't in the game plan. This year we obviously need Craft to do some things. We will need Lenzelle, Amir, myself, Trey, and everyone on the team to do more and those questions will be answered as the season goes on.”
Smith developed into a dependable perimeter shot, while Craft, who had offseason ankle surgery, scored most of his points on the break. Both need to become bigger offensive threats. Shannon Scott, a freshman back-up on the point a year ago, has worked hard on his shot and also will play a key role.
At forward, Thomas will spend time outside and inside. He's never met a shot he wouldn't take. Now he'll have to find a way to include his teammates in the flow and find the open man.
“If we all come together, everybody can shine,” he said.
If they do, it could be a special season for the Buckeyes.