Memories of Greg Oden swatting shots, Mike Conley Jr. knifing through traffic and Ron Lewis draining backbreaking jumpers in the NCAA Tournament are now just that — memories. Now, Ohio State head coach Thad Matta is going to have to develop a new core of players if he is to return the Buckeyes to the NCAA Tournament.
When the OCC — freshmen Oden, Conley and Daequan Cook — elected to join Lewis and Ivan Harris in departing, the roster from last season’s 35–4 squad that reached the NCAA final was seriously depleted, and the questions regarding the 2007-08 season doubled.
“It does (leave a hole) in some regards, but it’s part of the process of recruiting these days, and we’re still so young in what we’re building here that I think that it’s a situation where we’ve got to handle it and continue to build,” Matta says.
Jamar Butler, who will need to switch positions in the backcourt, is the only returning starter. It’s a difficult way to defend a Big Ten title, yet Matta was in this predicament a year ago.
“It is very similar to last year,” he says, “and I think it’s one of those deals where we have to have an open mind as a staff and really focus in on the teaching and coaching and get these guys as acclimated as we can as quickly as we can.”
Without Oden to absorb knocks inside and provide goalie-like defense, Othello Hunter will need to make a quantum leap as a senior. The former junior college player may be ready to do just that.
“Everybody forgets that this will be his fifth season of organized basketball, and I think we all saw this year that he’s a guy who just gets better every day,” Matta says.
Hunter will share time with classmate Matt Terwilliger, and immediate help inside is on the way in the form of talented transfer Kyle Madsen and ballyhooed freshmen Kosta Koufos and Dallas Lauderdale.
Koufos is a multi-skilled matchup nightmare whose contributions could range from bringing the ball upcourt in a pinch to firing threes to holding sway in the post.
“I’m telling you this: he’ll be the 5, man,” Hunter says with a chuckle. “I just think someone who’s 7'1" should be in the post.”
It’s clear that Butler, whose junior season ended with a forgettable outing against Florida in the Georgia Dome, will need to carry the load as far as the point guard duties are concerned. He did it ably as a sophomore as the Buckeyes charged to a league title, and he’ll have to do it without Conley around once again.
In the rare moments when Butler needs to sit, Matta will have to lean on a youngster. The candidates are sophomore David Lighty, the similarly versatile Evan Turner and freshman Jon Diebler, who played the position as a senior in high school when he led the nation in scoring.
Of course, Diebler was brought in primarily to shoot, and he will have an opportunity to start at the 2-guard spot. His size and picturesque release should make up for some growing pains. Turner is an ideal off-the-bench defender and role player, much like Lighty was last season.
After a strong postseason and a summer that included a stint in the USA Basketball program, Lighty should be ready to assume the duties at the third guard spot. Freshman Eric Wallace figures to back him up.
On the surface it would appear the Buckeyes are about to pay a penance for the exploits of last season, especially the postseason magnificence displayed by Conley. But Matta was prepared for a mass exodus by his young stars, and Ohio State still has the makings of a top 25 team that can contend in the Big Ten.
To do so, Koufos and another freshman will have to make a splash, Butler will need to be rock-steady, and Lighty and Hunter will need to become consistent impact performers. That isn’t going to happen overnight, but history shows that Matta’s teams usually manage to be formidable by February — and seem to excel come March.
“We can’t control where we’re picked or what people think of us,” says the 40-year-old coach. “We have to go out and play and get the job done. The biggest thing is just keep getting better.”