Welcome to Playboy.com’s 2014 Bracket Challenge

To stay in the NCAA rankings in 2013, the Buckeyes will rely on rookies to get them to March Madness

Team Preview: Ohio State Buckeyes

By: Fraser Lockerbie

Coach: Thad Matta 221-65 at Ohio State (323-96 overall)

2011-12 Finish: 31-8 (13-5 in the Big Ten), Final Four

Last year wasn’t the worst exodus Ohio State has had to deal with, but it was substantial: without Jared Sullinger and William Buford, the Buckeyes lack a true post player on both sides of the ball and a consistent all-around offensive presence, the glue that can hold a team together. But it’s not all bad; the Buckeyes are only bringing in one freshman for the 2012-13 season, suggesting Coach Matta thinks the leaps and bounds his sophomores made in their second season is a trend that will continue with this year’s group. If he’s right, Ohio State could be contending for more than a Final Four.

The Buckeyes need their rookies to keep them in College Basketballs rankingsStrong Side: The Buckeyes don’t have one individual player who can make up Sullinger’s numbers at both ends of the court, but they are a little deeper this year, meaning they have options. At 6’11”, 250 pounds, Amir Williams is a defensive gift from above, outstanding on the glass with above-average shot-blocking skills but, like most big men, not particularly mobile on offense. That’s where Deshaun Thomas comes in: the power forward showed flashes of brilliance last season and an ability to put a team on his back; he managed 15.9 points per game in 2012, and without Sullinger and Buford around to share shots, he could be good for 20 a game.

In the backcourt, Aaron Craft projects as one of college ball’s best defenders and is a proven filter through which to run an up-tempo, athletic offense. He may not be the most prolific scorer, but he and shot guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. have a knack for opening up the floor for others; both are just dangerous enough on the perimeter that opposing teams can’t risk them taking an unchallenged three.

Weak Side: That said, their shooting isn’t so strong that it can carry a team; without a true low-post scorer, Craft and Smith will have to either step up their outside production or settle for (a lot of) high-percentage shots to make up for those points formerly fed to Sullinger. They do have Italian transfer and sharpshooter Amedeo Della Valle, who can bury a basket from beyond the arc but whose overall skill set is not consistent enough to warrant significant minutes. Other offensive question marks for the Buckeyes are at small forward, where sophomores LaQuinton Ross and Sam Thompson show signs of divergent greatness (Ross a marksman, Thompson a slasher), but both were marred by minimal minutes in their freshman campaigns. But should both step into their roles in spite of inexperience, this could be a compliment, not a concern.

All Told: Even with all the unknowns on offense, the Buckeyes should be a competitive team in both the Big Ten and the NCAA. They’re athletic and probably one of the best teams in the country defensively, making their offensive output slightly less of a concern. If Deshaun Thomas can get help from even one of his second year small forwards (say in the 15-18 points per game range), they should be able to keep pace and anything else is gravy. But if it all works out, if Ross, Thompson and Williams all turn in outstanding sophomore seasons, the Buckeyes could be title contenders once again.

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