After two days of grading the Buckeye reserves, it’s time to take a look at the starters. These are the five young men Thad Matta entrusted with most of his minutes and charged with the successes and failures of the 2011-12 Ohio State basketball program. Did they get the job done? Well, yes and no, as we’ll explain below. At this time last year only two of the players on this list were being graded as starters and one was a freshman. Losing David Lighty’s stoic leadership, Jon Diebler’s blazing offensive output, and Dallas Lauderdale’s defense, blocked shots, and fine example of selflessness made this season somewhat of a rebuilding one in my mind when the campaign began, while many automatically assumed that this year’s group would automatically be title contenders.
After a blowout victory at home over Duke, many fans adopted the same air of entitlement worn proudly by motorists who ignore two miles of signs telling them their lane is closing, and rush hell-bent toward the flashing arrow before cutting off a conscientious driver who had been waiting patiently in the correct lane for 20 minutes. Yeah. It’s douchey. Don’t do that. You aren’t more important than everyone else so just get in the right damn line like you’re supposed to.
Wait, where was I? Oh yeah. When Ohio State started to struggle during the conference slate, it was much more the team I expected to see at the outset of the year, except beatdowns of the only good teams the Buckeyes played kept the flaws hidden. B1G games exposed the flaws, as usual. However, to Thad Matta’s credit, the team came together, rallying to play its best basketball after the home loss to Wisconsin. The rest you know: just a bit short in the B1G tournament finale, and an impressive run to the Final Four. It wasn’t the end we wanted, but it was perhaps just. So let’s get to the grades of the five men who led the way to cutting down the nets after the East regional final:
Lenzelle Smith Jr.: B- (Last year’s grade: Incomplete)
At first glance, this might seem like a harsh mark. After all, Lenzelle Smith took over as a starter this season, played terrific defense, provided offensive outbursts that helped win games, rebounded well, and generally did whatever was needed on any given night. These are all great things. Smith started all 39 games for the Buckeyes, averaging 25.4 minutes, 6.8 points and 4.6 rebounds per game. Smith was capable of getting red hot, as he was with 28 points on 10/12 shooting (4/5 outside the arc) on Jan. 15 against Indiana. That career high came out of nowhere, as his previous high on the season was 12, coincidentally at Indiana on New Year’s Eve. Smith was just as capable of playing ice cold basketball, as with his 1/7 night at Minnesota on Valentine’s Day. He was held to two field goals or fewer 27 different times this season and was usually the first one to hit the bench when things weren’t going well. He also struggled from the foul line much of the season.
Despite his penchant for inconsistency and occasional unwillingness to take an open shot—or to sometimes pass up a decent look early in the shot clock for a better one—Smith took huge strides forward this season and I envision a similar career path to David Lighty, albeit probably not as long of one. Lenzelle proved he gave not one damn for the whole state of Michigan with his 17 points and 12 rebounds (both team highs an his first career double-double) on Jan. 29. He scored in double figures in the final three games of the NCAA tourney, including 17 against Cincinnati and 18 against Syracuse. He finished third on the team in steals (35), fourth in rebounds (180) and third in assists (78). Smith is just scratching the surface of the player he can be, and if he can gain consistency with his jumper and limit careless turnovers, he could have quite a career.
Deshaun Thomas: A- (Last year’s grade: C+)
Like Smith, Tank was a first-year starter and was on the floor at the start of all 39 games. An unimpressive nine-point performance in the opener against Wright State belied what was to come: double figures in all but four games the rest of the way, a 30-point explosion at South Carolina, a double-double (25/13) at Michigan, another at Northwestern (19/10), capped by an insane 31 points and 12 rips against Loyola-MD in the first round of the NCAA tournament. In all, Tank topped the 20-point mark nine times on the season and was the East region’s highest scorer. His 15.9 scoring average was second on the team, and he was also second in total rebounds (209) and offensive boards (100). He was second in the B1G in offensive rebounds per game (2.6), behind only teammate Jared Sullinger (3.1). His 50 three-point field goals was second on the team, though he shot only 34.5%. He led the starters in FG% (54%) and improved his defense dramatically over the course of the season, especially in the second half of the B1G schedule.
Thomas, in fact, was the missing factor against Kansas in the Final Four. Plagued by foul trouble, Tank sat a lot in the second half, while the Jayhawks fought and clawed and eventually won the game by a single basket. Just before the half, Thomas had scored six straight points and looked to finally be in rhythm after a nervy start. Then his second foul came and he wasn’t much of a threat thereafter. It will be interesting to see if Thomas takes his game to the NBA. Another year of improved defense and a more consistent year beyond the arc could do wonders for his draft stock, possibly pushing him up into lottery territory. For now I would think he could be no better than a late first rounder or a second-round pick. For selfish reasons we’d like to have Tank back for another year.
Jared Sullinger: A (Last year’s grade: A+)
A slip from an A+ to an A might say more about expectations than actual performance here. There was nothing physically wrong with Sully’s game. He led the team in scoring average (19.2) and rebounds per game (9.2), and was among the conference leaders in both categories. He finished first on the team in blocked shots (39), was second in steals (43), and he shot 51.9% from the floor and 76.8% at the line. He even led the team in three-point percentage (40% on 16/40). He posted 17 double-doubles in 37 games played (36 starts). And all of that came despite being hampered by back and foot injuries at different times this season. The consensus first-team All-American and East regional MOP topped the 20-point mark 12 times, with a 30-point, 12-rebound game against Purdue on March 9. His 22-point, 18-rebound performance at Northwestern was the very definition of beast mode.
So where did we take marks off of his final grade? Well, it seemed a tough season for Sully. He didn’t seem to be playing with the same fire at times, as if he weren’t enjoying himself. He picked up a bad habit of complaining to officials when things weren’t going his way. He had a dubious triple-double against Michigan State with 17 points, 16 boards and 10 (!) turnovers. He often lacked explosiveness to the rim, resulting in blocked shots instead of fouls or baskets. He took plays off on defense and admitted it in the press after a loss at Illinois. Something more than a few pounds was amiss from Sully’s game this season. It may have been the expectation of playing the 4 this year (shedding those pounds, working that jump shot, etc.) and being stuck at the 5. He was still great by anyone’s standards, but his performances last season suggested he was capable of a little more. Yesterday he announced that he’s played his last game in scarlet and gray. He leaves his fingerprints all over the Ohio State media guide forevermore and we wish him the best of luck
Aaron Craft: A (Last year’s grade: A-)
After a brilliant freshman season, Aaron Craft became a starter this season and he did not disappoint. Playing all 39 games, he averaged 8.8 points, 4.6 assists and 3.2 rebounds per game, shooting 50% from the field. He set a single-season OSU record for steals with 98 this year, leading all B1G players. He was fourth in the league in assist/turnover ratio (2.2) and third in the conference in assists per game (4.6). He recorded his first career double-double with a 17-point, 10-assist performance in the NCAA round of 32 against Gonzaga—it was the second most assists ever in an NCAA tournament game by a Buckeye. He also set a school mark for steals in a tournament game, with six swipes against Cincinnati in the Sweet 16. In eight of his last 12 games Craft scored in double figures.
And the defense—My God, the defense! When he wasn’t stealing the ball, Craft was hounding his opponent into turnovers, drawing charges, and/or forcing horrible shooting nights by the opposing point guard. His domination of Trey Burke in the B1G tourney semifinal was a work of art. In just two seasons he has climbed to third on the school’s career steals list. If there are any critiques of Craft’s play this year, they are very minor. His foul shooting (71.3%) was spotty, though it started very poorly and improved later in the season. His three-point percentage dropped slightly from his freshman year. Sometimes he forgets to include himself in the offense. That’s about it. Craft’s game grew in almost every facet in his second season. He also became the team’s vocal leader. If he continues to add offense without sacrificing anything on defense, Craft will make opposing teams cry.
William Buford: B+ (Last year’s grade: A)
Let’s get one thing straight. William Buford did not become a streaky shooter this season. He has always been that way, although many people seem to think it started with a poor performance in the 2011 Sweet 16 against Kentucky. It’s true that Buford was more wildly inconsistent on offense this season. It’s true that the burden of leadership as the lone senior seemed too big of a yoke to hang around his neck, and it appeared to affect his play as well as his decision making at times. He was probably affected as much as Sully, if not more so, by the departures of Lighty and Diebler. It’s a security blanket thing. Yes, Buford’s statistical numbers dropped in terms of shooting percentage, three-point percentage and even slightly from the foul line. He had two fewer assists this season and 18 more turnovers, playing about a minute more per contest.
Still, Buford scored 20 or more points nine times this season, compared to only five times last year. He scored in double figures 31 times in 39 games. Last year he reached double figures 28 times. But one thing that Buford improved greatly upon was his defense. He finished with 33 steals (four more than last year) and increased his rebound total by 53, finishing with 191. He averaged 14.5 points, 5.0 rebounds and 2.6 assists per contest. He dropped 29 on Purdue in February and 28 on Northwestern in the B1G opener. His 11 rebounds at Iowa were a season high, but a 3/14 shooting night cost him a double-double. No one will ever forget his game-winning shot at Sparty that gave Ohio State a share of the B1G title. And he went out like a warrior with his 19 points and seven rebounds in the Final Four against Kansas. He etched his name in the OSU record book right next to Jerry Lucas, tying the Buckeye legend for third on the school’s career scoring list. Like Sullinger, we bid a fond farewell to the WB and wish him luck on the next step in his journey.