The Buckeyes hit the hardwood for the first time this season tonight, taking on Marquette on the USS Yorktown in Charleston, SC. This opportunity is about much more than basketball for both squads, and Thad Matta and Buzz Williams both made it clear that this trip will also give their players a deeper appreciation for the military. In fact, the 4,000 seats that have been set up for the game will mostly be filled by military personnel, making this is very unique experience for all those involved.
Still, at the end of the day, this spectacle is about basketball. A year ago in the Carrier Classic, the first time this sort of event was attempted, both North Carolina and Michigan State struggled greatly offensively. One would imagine a similar type game for these two teams tonight. Besides playing outside and being in such a unique environment, both the Buckeyes and Golden Eagles will take the court with much different teams than they had a year ago. The Buckeyes lost guys like Jared Sullinger and William Buford, who were a big part of the run to the Final Four. Williams' Eagles are now without Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder, the Big East Player of the Year. Those two combined for 35.8 points and 11.9 rebounds per game last year, and helped lead them to the Sweet Sixteen. They'll also be without sophomore guard Todd Mayo, who was declared academically ineligible this week. So, needless to say, both teams will be looking for an identity tonight.
While it is tough to predict exactly what this matchup will look like when the dust settles and how these teams will look on a national stage in game one, here's what I'll be looking for tonight.
The biggest battle will be between Ross and Thompson, who both shined in the exhibition game against Walsh. While Ross slightly edged Thompson statistically, the numbers were close, and Thompson provides a defensive presence at this point that Ross doesn't. I'll definitely be keeping a close eye on how Matta handles those two. Both also will see plenty of time against senior transfer Trent Lockett, who will present some matchup difficulties. Let's see who emerges and who will be the sixth man on this team.
The other battle is between Williams and Ravenel. While everyone knows that Williams has to step up if this team plans on living up to expectations, there are still some issues with him being a complete player. Ravenel on the other hand, has the experience edge, but lacks the size and pure scoring ability to be "the" guy at center. I'll be watching them tonight as well. Like most Marquette teams in recent memory, this year's squad is a bit undersized and will want to run the floor. So in theory, these two should be able to dominate the glass and win the battle inside.
2) How much offense do Craft and Smith Jr. provide the Buckeyes? Deshaun Thomas can't carry this team alone. Others are going to have to step up to take some of the pressure off his shoulders, starting with the Junior duo at guard. Both Craft and Smith Jr. have some offensive firepower in the arsenal, and had breakout moments a year ago. Still, those moments were inconsistent. Some of that was obviously due to the rest of the starting lineup wanting the ball in their hands. There's only one ball to go around, and these two played their part to provide for teammates.
Now a year later, with lots of new faces and a much younger team, Craft and Smith Jr. have to carry the torch. Out of the two, I'll especially be watching Craft. He's got the ability to create for himself off of the dribble and has shown he is probably too unselfish at times. Tonight I want to see if he takes a step forward.
3) What is this team's defensive identity? Here's what we know. Aaron Craft is arguably the best on-the-ball defender at guard in the country, and Amir Williams will block a lot of shots this season. Outside of that, it really is a toss up.
Matta has never been known as an unbelievably strong defensive coach, and the last two year's the Buckeyes have had their woes defending the three point stripe. With a much younger lineup this season, it's really anyone's guess what they will look like. While young teams typically have a lot of breakdowns, there are some positive things to note. Besides the two aforementioned players, Smith Jr. and Thompson will both provide a solid defensive presence.
The Buckeyes need to play strong in that area of the game and need these guys to step up, especially early on, as they find their offensive identity.
4) Which bench performs the best? What could make a big impact in the outcome of tonight's game will be which squad gets the best play off the bench. On paper it would appear the Buckeyes have the advantage here, as the Walsh game showed how many young weapons Matta has at his disposal.
There's several guys to keep an eye on Buzz Williams bench as well though. Despite losing Mayo, which thinned out their ranks, they still have some firepower coming off the pine. At guard sophomore Derrick Wilson and freshman Jamal Ferguson will both see plenty of time in tonight's game, and will be looking to make a name for themselves. At forward, I'll be keeping a close eye on freshman Steve Taylor Jr, who was a McDonald's All-American. Also, Williams will play senior center Chris Otule. The 6-11 senior saw 17.8 minutes a game last season, but lead them in blocks. I could easily see him matching up against Amir Williams.
So, which squad gets a spark from the bench? That's what I'm watching.
With all that in mind. What's my prediction?
Final Score: Ohio State 62, Marquette 59