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COLUMBUS — For northwest Ohio and the college basketball power it feeds, it is the beginning of one era and the end of another.
Toledo’s Marc Loving and Findlay’s Aaron Craft are teammates for another anticipated Ohio State season — and they could be seen in tandem more than you might think.
While Craft is the senior star leading a veteran roster, Buckeyes coach Thad Matta said he is “blown away” by the progress of the freshman forward from St. John’s Jesuit.
The 6-foot-7, 215-pound Loving has proven himself in practice among the top shooters on a team in need of them. Even in limited minutes, he is expected to play an important role for No. 11 OSU, which opens its season today against Morgan State.
In the Buckeyes’ only exhibition game — a 93-63 win against Walsh — Loving had five points, nine rebounds, and two blocked shots in 21 minutes.
“This is a pretty big stage coming from Toledo high school basketball,” Loving said. “But the [nerves] wore off pretty quick, and I’m ready for the season to get going.”
Matta said at Big Ten media day he is “very, very pleased” with Loving, a four-star recruit and Ohio’s reigning Mr. Basketball — the Glass City’s second since Macomber’s Jimmy Jackson won in 1988 and 1989 before setting off on an All-America career at OSU. Libbey' s William Buford, also an Ohio State alumnus, was Mr. Basketball in 2008.
“I’m probably a little bit surprised at how quickly he’s adapted,” Matta said. “He still has a lot of areas he needs to improve on, but where he is today as a player is very exciting.
“The greatest thing Marc has going for him is he wants to be a player. He’s a sponge in learning and studying film. He’s only had two ‘freshman’ practices, and he knew he had them. He came back and followed them up with a great practice.”
Loving will be one of several options in a suddenly diverse Buckeyes offense.
While OSU returns four of five starters from last season’s Elite Eight team, this group will have a more democratic feel.
The early departure of All-Big Ten forward Deshaun Thomas, who led the conference in scoring and was never shy with the ball, means expanded offensive roles for Craft — the defensive maestro from Liberty-Benton who overhauled his shot after averaging 10 points on 41.7 percent shooting last season — senior guard Lenzelle Smith (9.2 points), junior forwards LaQuinton Ross (8.3) and Sam Thompson (7.8), and enigmatic junior post Amir Williams (3.5).
“The thing that I’ve seen to this point so far is everybody on the team has made drastic improvements offensively,” Matta said, “and that’s exciting for me. I think the dynamics of our offense will be very unselfish play.”
Now add in Loving, and the Buckeyes — the only team to crash the Sweet 16 in each of the past four seasons — appear squarely in position for another deep March run.
“The cat is out of the bag on everybody except Marc Loving, who’s going to provide pretty solid minutes and points for us,” Smith said. “He’s one of the top-notch shot-makers on our team. That will be a surprise and new face for our fans.
“I know how difficult it can be to transition from high school to college. It’s a totally different ballgame. But if he can transition what he’s doing in practice to the games, he’s going to be great.”