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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Heading into his ninth season at Ohio State, Thad Matta won't have to worry about his team getting down on itself. And he also won't have to worry about it getting overconfident either.
Seven months removed from a Final Four appearance, but having lost more than 32 points worth of production from last season's roster, there may not be a more difficult team in the country to write a forecast for this season than the Buckeyes. Those aforementioned factors are just some of the reasons why Ohio State finds itself ranked fourth in the nation in both The Associated Press Top 25 and USA Today Coaches Poll, yet was also picked to finish third in the Big Ten at the conference's media day last week.
"I'll be honest, I don't know how to view that," Matta said, when asked about the uniqueness of the current projections for his team. "I guess the Big Ten is really, really good this year."
Detractors of the Buckeyes see a squad that is without its leading scorer and rebounder from the past two seasons in two-time All-American Jared Sullinger, and the program's third all-time leading scorer in William Buford. OSU point guard Aaron Craft admitted that the losses of Sullinger and Buford could take a toll on this year's team, but he still expects it to live up to the standards that the program has set.
"It's a big loss. Both of those guys were vocal and Will was around and knew when he needed to say something and knew when he just needed to go out and perform and lead by example," Craft said. "It's a new year, but expectations don't change year in and year out."
It's hard to imagine one player replacing Sullinger, who was selected by the Boston Celtics with the No. 21 pick in last June's NBA Draft. That's not to say that the Buckeyes don't have upside at the center position, however, which comes in the form of 6-foot-11 Amir Williams.
While he may not be the low post threat that his predecessor in the paint was, Williams is a much more capable defender than Sullinger was, which he showed when he recorded two blocks in the Buckeyes' Elite Eight win over Syracuse last season. Backed up by reliable senior Evan Ravenel, the sophomore center may not make OSU fans forget about No. 0 quite yet, but he could add a dynamic to the Buckeyes' defense that it hasn't seen in quite some time.
The candidates to replace Sullinger- Williams, Ravenel, and Trey McDonald- are pretty clearcut, but replacing Buford may take a little more creativity from Matta. Although OSU possesses a plethora of talented wings on its roster, not one of their skill sets resembles that of the streaky scorer and four-year starter.
The first player to get a shot at replicating the 14.5 points per game that Buford scored last season was sophomore LaQuinton Ross, who started at small forward and scored 13 points for the Buckeyes in their exhibition win over Walsh last week. At 6-foot-8, Ross is certainly an intriguing candidate to start for OSU, and along with Williams could give the Buckeyes one of their tallest lineups in years.
Outside of Ross, expect for 6-foot-7 sophomore Sam Thompson to play a key role for the Buckeyes, whether it be as a starter or a super-sub, as will Shannon Scott, who along with Craft could help OSU push the tempo with two-guard sets.
"Offensively, it's probably going to be a little different. Without Jared and Will, we've got to find ways to score the basketball," Craft admitted. "We have a lot of guys around us that worked really hard and can knock down a lot of shots, so just trying to be unselfish and make a play for someone else, let them knock down some shots and see what we can do."
As for why the Buckeyes are ranked high as they are in the national polls, look no further than the returns of Craft- the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, and forward Deshaun Thomas- a preseason All-American who bypassed the NBA Draft last June in order to return to Columbus for his junior season. Those two combine with junior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. to give Matta three of his five starters from last year's Final Four squad, but it's how those players mesh with their younger teammates that will determine how successful this year's team is.
After watching his team lose three of five games in a stretch last February, Matta learned that talent doesn't always trump chemistry, which is one of the biggest reasons why a new emphasis has been placed on keeping outside forces away from the Buckeyes.
"The very first day we got back from summer break, Coach Matta had a meeting, and what he said was keeping it in the 'O,'" Thompson explained. "He had his block 'O' diagrammed, he had some words around the block 'O.' All the guys on the team know what that means: just stay within ourselves, stay within the team."
Matta said that his new motto is a result of a natural evolution that is not only happening with college basketball players, but college students in general. While he admitted that last year's team let things get outside of the "O' at times, he is hopeful that this year's Buckeyes will learn from its mistakes.
"College athletics has become unbelievable, other people getting inside the team. Social media is a huge factor to that. It is funny, because people read things, but we can't allow outside influences effect where this team is going. It is amazing phenomenon," Matta said. "Whatever anybody writers, or Tweets, or puts on the internet, that's really irrelevant. It is all right here on that practice court."
Exactly what the 2012-13 Buckeyes can be capable of if they stay within the 'O' remains to be seen, but having gotten a first-hand look at what last year's team could do, Thompson has an idea, and if this year's squad is anything like them, a fourth-consecutive Big Ten title could be headed Columbus' way.
Any time we weren't playing our best basketball or any time we were losing, we probably got outside of the 'O' just because of the talent that we had," Thompson said. "If we were inside of the 'O,' we would have been winning every game."