As the Ohio State men’s basketball season begins this evening in the Carrier Classic, the Buckeyes will start to find out the answers to many of the important questions that face them this season.
How will the team play without two-time All-America center Jared Sullinger and four-year contributor William Buford? Which younger players will contribute in the stead of those departed Buckeyes? Will Deshaun Thomas be ready to step up as both the team’s No. scorer as well as a complete player?
And will anyone fall off the edge of the USS Yorktown and into Charleston Harbor during the Buckeyes’ opening game against Marquette?
OK, that last one seems a little unlikely, but the fact the Buckeyes are playing on water in a decommissioned aircraft carrier does provide a unique setting for Thad Matta’s men to lift the lid on the 2012-13 season.
“I mean, it’s going to be different,” Thomas said before the Buckeyes headed to South Carolina for tonight’s 7 p.m. start (NBC Sports Network). “If I dive on the ground, I’ll make sure I’m angling so I don’t dive in the water. I’m going to leave that to (Aaron) Craft, though.
“It’s going to be great, but I’m going to try to stay away from the edge a little bit.”
Thomas has no reason to be worried, however. The 4,000-seat venue constructed on the Yorktown, which served in the Pacific Theater of World War II and the Vietnam War, is set up so that no players diving after loose balls should have any worry of plunging off the edge.
But there is no question that the chance to play outdoors and in front of military personnel provides a unique start to the season for last year’s national semifinalists. The game will be played outdoors and under the lights, two conditions that might add some difficulty to the equation.
The good news is that rain is not in the forecast, with temperatures in Charleston – where the OSU women will also play on the flight deck at 4 p.m. – expected to top out around 70 then cool into the 50s during the evening. Weather.com also predicts wind, too, with a NNE breeze of 5 to 10 mph during the day before turning “light and variable” in the evening.
Either way, Thomas – who hails from Fort Wayne, Ind., where there are four seasons and weather isn’t exactly guaranteed to be nice – doesn’t expect to be bothered too much.
“That’s how I basically started, playing outside,” Thomas said. “Playing in rain sometimes, windy, so it’s going to be very comfortable for me to go out there and play. I can shoot through anything. You’re going to see some jumpers going in in the wind.”
Craft, the OSU starting point guard, agrees that the shot-happy Thomas shouldn’t have many troubles, but the Findlay, Ohio, native has some questions about the rest of the team.
“One thing I know, if anybody can find a way to shoot the ball through the wind, it’s my guy right here,” Craft said. “It’s definitely going to be interesting. It’s going to be dark and there’s definitely going to be some wind. I wish it was a little nicer here so we could practice outside, but it’s not. It’s going to be fun though.
“Anything that is different or any adversity that comes, they have to deal with it, too. Hopefully it’s not too windy and we can go out there and not think about it too much.”
All About The Troops
Ohio State is taking part in what is suddenly a trend in college athletics. Michigan State – whose athletic director, Mark Hollis, is the brainchild of the event – and North Carolina played on the USS Carl Vinson last year, and the Spartans are beginning the season tonight by playing UConn at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Florida and Georgetown are opening the season today on the active-duty USS Bataan in Jacksonville.
All of those events are designed to celebrate military personnel across the world, and the Carrier Classic is at the forefront of those efforts. Ohio State arrived in Charleston on Thursday morning, practiced and then hosted a basketball clinic with the other teams on hand. The money raised by the event will go to military-related funds, and many of the seats have been reserved for military personnel and veterans.
“(Our players’) eyes have been opened in that there is more than the billion dollar industry of college basketball,” Matta said. “For them to understand there are people fighting for their lives … it’s our chance to pay honor to them.”
The visit to the aircraft carrier has a special meaning for at least one Ohio State player. Craft, whose sister Cait is a freshman on the women’s team that opens as part of the same event vs. Notre Dame, has a brother, Brandon, who is a U.S. Army infantryman who was deployed to Afghanistan in March.
Aaron said Wednesday that Brandon has completed his operations and is due back in the country on Nov. 17. Though his brother won’t be able to attend the game that would likely mean so much to him, Aaron will play with the knowledge of what being a member of a military family is like.
“I just talked to him yesterday, and he finished his last mission, so he’s packing up and getting everyone else there to take his place,” Aaron said. “My sister is going to be (in Charleston) as well, so that’s going to be a good experience for my entire family. Maybe we can see some things and soak it in and not just go down there to play basketball.
“Once it comes game time, you get in the zone and it’s basketball, but maybe before a little bit you get to enjoy it and hopefully soak it in and remember to take a lot of pictures.”
Thomas, who said he likes Ohio State’s camouflage-themed uniforms, added he’s excited to play in front of so many servicemen and women as well.
“It means a lot for me and our team to be invited to play in front of the troops,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about. The stuff they do for us, fighting over there and doing what they have to do, it’s just a motivation to play for them and play our best.”
Time To Begin, Isn’t It?
While the game will be a spectacle and a lasting memory for those taking part, it also doubles as the season opener for Ohio State as the Buckeyes begin what is expected to be an entertaining but interesting campaign.
“To be able to have a big game for the first one, it’s definitely something to remember,” Craft said. “But at the same time, it’s the start of the season. There are no more tryouts. There are no more second chances, so just try to enjoy it as much as you can, but at the same time, when it comes down to it, it’s a business trip.”
The Buckeyes do return Craft, Thomas and versatile starting guard Lenzelle Smith Jr., but there are question marks about size up front and depth after the departures of Sullinger and Buford, who provided a combined 31.9 points and 14.1 rebounds per game.
There are plenty of talented options, but the team’s exhibition game against Walsh last Tuesday was a hit-or-miss performance. The Buckeyes posted an 83-71 win against the Cavaliers but trailed for much of the first half and then only outscored the visitors by three in the second stanza.
Thomas impressed with a game-high 25 points on 9 of 17 shooting – taking eight more shots than any other teammate as he assumes the role of undisputed offensive kingpin – while talented sophomore forward LaQuinton Ross added 13 points in a starting role.
The team’s big men gave reason for excitement, as Amir Williams started and posted five rebounds and five blocks while adding three points and Evan Ravenel had 11 points off the bench. And when it comes to depth, Sam Thompson had an excellent 11-point, four-rebound, three-assist and three-block performance.
But on the other end, there were concerns. The Buckeyes forced 19 turnovers, turning them into 28 points, but Walsh made 29 of 60 shots including 8 of 16 threes. The Cavaliers also evened the rebounding margin at 33 apiece.
Matta said afterward he was displeased by the intensity level displayed by his relatively green outfit, but the team’s point guard assured a better showing against the Golden Eagles after a week and a half of practice.
“We’re definitely a better basketball team than we were last Tuesday,” Craft said. “Practices just have more of a sense of urgency. We came in with a better understanding that we can’t take things for granted. We can’t assume everyone knows what they’re supposed to do. We’re just trying to solidify ourselves offensively and defensively, going back to basics. That’s what we need to do to build forward from here.”
Matta knows he won’t necessarily be able to judge his team, though, after one game, especially one as out of the ordinary as the Carrier Classic.
“It’s the first game of the year,” the ninth-year head coach said. “It would be hard to pick just one (thing I’m focused on), but I want to see if our guys can function eight out of 10 plays. The circumstances and conditions are unique. It’s not going to be like this again. I want to see if they can stay cohesive as a unit, with effort, rotation-wise defensively, and we have some sort of semblance of attempting to execute our offense. Those are the things that I’m looking for.”
The team formerly known as the Warriors has a strong history that includes the 1977 national championship, a 2003 Final Four bid and a current run of seven consecutive NCAA tournament appearances.
The Golden Eagles were dealt a blow this week when guard Todd Mayo (7.9 ppg last year) was ruled academically ineligible for the start of the campaign, but the squad is still receiving votes in the preseason AP poll.
The squad lost its top two scorers in Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder but added a pair of talented transfer guards Trent Lockett (Arizona State) and Jake Thomas (South Dakota) as well as four-star forward recruit Steve Taylor to this year’s active roster.
Massive forward Davante Gardner (6-8, 290) is the top returning player with 9.5 points and 5.3 rebounds per game last year, while the team is looking for talented junior guard Vander Blue to step up after 8.4 ppg last year. Marquette isn’t the biggest team, but Buzz Williams’ squad has a reputation for beating teams with solid fundamental play and hard work.
"I know that they have a physical team,” Thomas said. “They try to make you turn the ball over. They try to make you panic. They’re just a good team. They like to execute a lot of energy plays – steals, 50-50 balls, dunks on the other end. They’re a team who’s very scrappy and plays hard.”