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Coach Thad Matta offers a statistic that underscores the difference in his team before and after guard-forward David Lighty broke a bone in his left foot in the seventh game last season. "With David we were Number 1 in Ken Pomeroy's [team] defense rankings; after he went down, we dropped into the 50s," Matta says of the stat guru's efficiency ratings, derived from points allowed per 100 possessions. "People didn't see all the things [Lighty] did for us, but when he got hurt, there was a drastic difference."
The Buckeyes were 7--0 with Lighty and 15--11 without him, a swing that suggests the team had lost its elite scorer. But Lighty, now a junior, was Ohio State's best defensive player—one who could guard every position but center. He was a veteran influence on a team composed largely of freshmen and mostly untested sophomores. "We went to Wisconsin after David was injured, and none of our guys had played in that gym," Matta says. "We didn't have that experienced player to lead the younger guys."
Lighty rejoins four returning starters for what should be Matta's deepest team (in all, 12 players are back) since his 2007 Final Four squad. "Last year we could use inexperience as an excuse," Lighty says. "Not anymore."
With Lighty shoring up the defense, it will fall to junior swingman Evan Turner to remedy another problem in 2008--09: turnovers. The Buckeyes shot a Big Ten--best 48.4% from the field, but their assist-to-turnover ratio was an appalling 1 to 1. Because the team is without a standout point guard, Turner will act as a point forward, creating mismatches and (fingers crossed) protecting the ball. If he can run an offense, Turner's NBA stock and his team's Final Four prospects will improve considerably.
Matta is confident that his team will continue to progress under Lighty's guidance. "The communication, the commitment to defense and rebounding—a team needs that," Matta says.
Lighty says he's up to the task: "I'm ready to do it all."
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE
Thad Matta (6th season)