Almost feels like Groundhog's Day. Think about the way the 2011-12 Duke season started. The program had lost its standout guards Kyrie Irving and Nolan Smith, as well as all-time great Kyle Singler, and was seeking to put the memories of a poor performance in the NCAA Tournament loss to Arizona behind them. Duke had a hotshot freshman guard in Austin Rivers and a number of returnees whose progress and development coming into the season seemed uncertain. The Blue Devils got wins over Belmont and Presbyterian, then won the big tilt against Michigan State in Madison Square Garden. After dispatching Davidson, it was time for the Thanksgiving tournament. The team came up big in winning the whole thing in Maui, beating two solid teams in Tennessee and Michigan, and one outstanding one in Kansas. They turned around and headed to play the ACC-Big 10 Challenge game in Columbus against Ohio State, and the exhausted Blue Devils were spanked 85-63, and were dominated in every phase of the game. That Buckeyes team turned out to be pretty good, as they advanced to last season's Final Four.
This year, the team lost its standout guard Austin Rivers as well as first-round draft pick Miles Plumlee and veteran Andre Dawkins, and is seeking to put the memories of a poor performance in the NCAA Tournament loss to Lehigh behind it. Duke has a hotshot freshman guard in Rasheed Sulaimon and a number of returnees whose progress and development coming into the season seemed uncertain. After a season-opening win over Georgia State, the Blue Devils won the big tilt against Kentucky in the Georgia Dome. After dispatching Florida Gulf Coast, it was time for the Thanksgiving tournament. The team came up big in winning the whole thing in Nassau, beating two solid teams in Minnesota and VCU, and one outstanding one in Louisville. Now they turn around to play the ACC-Big 10 Challenge game, this time in Durham, against . . . Ohio State. Tipoff is Wednesday night at 9:30 PM (isn't that kinda late?) on ESPN. Musburger and Bilas at the mikes for what will be Ohio State's first-ever visit to Cameron.
But I would not expect a similar result, for a number of reasons. First of all, Ohio State, while ranked in the top 5 again (and having been a #1 or #2 seed in the NCAA's in five of the last seven years), is not the same team. The centerpieces of the 2011-12 Buckeyes were sophomore big man Jared Sullinger and his ample derrierre, both now of the Boston Celtics. Swingman William Buford, who was often very good, has graduated. The top dog this year is 6'7" junior forward Deshaun Thomas, who broke out in the NCAA Tournament last year and has really diversified his game; through Ohio State's four games the lefty is averaging 24 points and 7 rebounds, and is shooting 54% and 48% from 3-point land. He's been a beast. The leader in the backcourt is clearly junior Aaron Craft, widely acknowledged to be one of the top defensive players in the land, but one who has improved his shooting now as well. So far, Craft is averaging 14 ppg, up from 8.8 last year, and is dishing out his customary 5 assists per game to boot. The third returning starter is guard Lenzelle Smith, Jr., a sporadic 3-point threat, averaging 11.5 ppg and 5.3 boards -- not bad from the backcourt. He also provides solid D on the perimeter.
Sam Thompson, a 6'7"soph starts on the wing as well. This kid is super-athletic, plays terrific D, and brings effort and an outstanding attitude to the floor every night. He's not a shooter, but he can get to the hoop. You better block him out, because with his hops he can do damage on the offensive board. With Craft, Smith, and Thompson on the perimeter defensively, the Buckeyes can really force opposing offenses out of their comfort zones. Against the wishes of many Buckeye faithful, 6'8" 250 pound senior Evan Ravenel has been the fifth starter in each Ohio State game thus far. Ravenel can play the 4 or the 5, and while not flashy and not a scorer, is a good position defender and provides veteran leadership.
One of the differences in this year's Buckeyes is that Coach Thad Matta is more intent on developing and using his depth. In each of the last three years, Ohio State had four starters average over 30 minutes per game. But Matta wants to facilitate a faster pace this season, as he's more perimeter-oriented due to his no longer having Sullinger, so he wants more guys involved. Hence, already this year Matta has been playing 8 guys at least 13 minutes. I'm surprised sophs Amir Williams, a 6'10" center, and 6'8" forward LaQuinton Ross haven't earned starting roles. Ross is the kid who many Buckeye fans see as the next potential breakout star. Originally thought to be a one-and-done candidate coming out of Mississippi, Ross was academically ineligible for the first semester of his freshman year, and never really got into it. But he can shoot and he can create, no question. The issue with Ross has been his attitude. He hasn't gotten after it sufficiently at the defensive end, and has not always played well in the sandbox. There was some talk that he might not be happy still coming off the bench in his second year, and who knows? Maybe it's true. But if Ohio State needs someone to step up and be the third scorer after Thomas and Craft, it's clear that Ross has the most ability to be that guy. But he has to earn it in practice, and he has to earn it at the defensive end (sound familiar, Duke fans?) and thus far he hasn't.
Williams also came out of high school with a lot of hype, and thus far is still adapting to the college game. He's in much better condition this year, and he is up to 250 pounds, so that should help him underneath. He is a good shot blocker, but still a work in progress offensively. If he can gain some consistency, he's going to get more minutes, because he clearly has a higher ceiling than does Ravenel.
Shannon Scott, a 6'1" soph out of Georgia, is another kid who can help this team. The former McDonald's All-American is primarily backing up Craft right now. Scott shot poorly last year, and hasn't added much scoring punch so far this season either, but he's very quick and pressures the ball very well.
The Buckeyes did not add any notable recruits out of the 2012 class, other than shooter Amedeo Della Valle, out of Alba, Italy by way of Findlay Prep in Nevada. It's that class of 2011 -- meaning Thompson, Ross, Williams, and Scott, that Coach Matta needs to step it up if this team is to approach the heights attained by recent Buckeye squads.
Ohio State has not played much of a schedule yet this year. Their season opener was to be an aircraft carrier affair aboard the USS Yorktown against Marquette, but the game had to be cancelled due to excessive condensation on the court, making it too slippery and dangerous for the players. Having been decommissioned in 1970, there were apparently no sailors from the great vessel available to swab those decks. In any event, Ohio State beat the Great Danes of Albany, then handled both Rhode Island and Washington -- neither of which has a vintage squad this year -- to win the Hall of Fame Tipoff Tournament, and enjoyed a laugher over the outmanned Kangaroos of UMKC by 46. So I'd say they're gonna be up for Duke.
As usual, Matta has a roster of physical players, and he stresses defensive intensity for 40 minutes. They won't press full-court the whole game like VCU or Louisville did, but Duke should expect nothing easy against Ohio State. You know how much Matta focuses on defense by the fact that he openly stated in the pre-season that the best five defenders would start for the Buckeyes. You also know it because over the past five years, Ohio State has allowed the fewest points per possession of any team in the nation.
Some nights this team is going to be offensively challenged. But because they play eight, nine, sometimes ten guys, they are able to keep up the defensive pressure and bang the boards the whole game. Duke is coming off a 3 games-in-3-nights gauntlet down at the Atlantis, and doesn't get a ton of turnaround time to prepare for the Buckeyes.
But Duke is in a very different place than they were a year ago. Sure, they were coming off the big win over Kansas in Maui and everyone was feeling good. But there was a sinking feeling that the team was not built upon a solid foundation, and those fears turned out to be well-founded. This year's team has a true point guard in Quinn Cook, who is healthy and at the top of his game, and feeling ultra-confident after taking home the MVP hardware from The Bahamas. Duke had nobody like him last year to contend with a guy like Craft and all the havoc he can wreak. I'd say that Ohio State has to figure out how it's going to deal with Cook as much as Duke has to figure out how it's going to deal with Craft. Unlike last year, Duke will have the best big man on the floor, clearly, in Mason Plumlee. The Blue Devils also sport a savvy and experienced leader, and deadeye shooter in Seth Curry, and another experienced, solid senior starter in Ryan Kelly. Duke did not possess those attributes last year at this time. Curry, despite his injury, is playing at a much higher level than he did last year, and with a ton of confidence that he did not enjoy in 2011-12 as he and Austin Rivers had to figure out how to play together. There appear to be no such issues between Curry and freshman Rasheed Sulaimon, who is providing shooting, size in the backcourt, tough defense, and an unselfish attitude that has been contagious. And this year, Duke is at home to face the Buckeyes.
This game is going to be interesting. With Ohio State's leading scorer being an aggressive 6'7" guy who plays both inside and outside, it provides a challenge for Duke, because we don't have a guy like that. Neither Alex Murphy nor Amile Jefferson, who many Duke fans hoped would be ready to play tough opposing small forwards, has earned the trust of Coach K in a meaningful way. So it'll be Sulaimon, it'll be Kelly, it may even be Ty Thornton who try their hand against Thomas. But Thomas is likely to get his. I for one don't see Ohio State quite having enough horses though to counter all the different ways Duke can beat you, if they continue to play anything like they have thus far this year. Inside or out, halfcourt or on the break, taking care of the ball and sharing it, and playing much better defense -- individually and as a team -- I just think the Blue Devils have a better team. Especially playing at home -- where they've won 96 in a row against nonconference foes -- and with a lot of momentum, I'd be surprised -- not shocked, but surprised -- to see Ohio State hang one on the Blue Devils.