Fans of Ohio State basketball have had a lot to cheer about since the arrival of Thad Matta in 2004. Matta’s passionate coaching coupled with his ability to recruit top players has created a program that puts a superb team on the court year in and year out. If you’re truly going to be a contender each season, you can’t have one without the other. Great talent can power you through games, even if the plays aren’t running smoothly and there are breakdowns in focus. Conversely, a well-disciplined team that executes can overcome a team made up of individual stars. It’s the teams that develop a pipeline of talent and then harness it appropriately that win championships.
Ohio State’s 2006 recruiting class set the bar for bringing in elite players, and under Matta’s coaching the Buckeyes made it all the way to the national championship game with that freshmen-led team. Along the way, fans got to experience an undefeated home record, only the fourth freshman All-American of all time in Greg Oden, and the electrifying play of Mike Conley, Jr. The NCAA Tournament run capped an impressive season with thrilling wins over Xavier and Tennessee. After the season, Oden, Conley, and fellow freshman and Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year Daequan Cook bolted for the financially greener pastures of the NBA.
The 2010 Buckeye freshmen class has yet to prove how far it can go or how good it can be, but expectations are high, and with each successive victory the excitement grows. It’s not every year that you have a freshman drop a “quiet 40,” as Jared Sullinger did against IUPUI last month. There’s also a lot to be said for the stellar floor leadership of point guard Aaron Craft, and the combination scoring-rebounding boost that Deshaun Thomas can provide off the bench.
What are some of the similarities and differences between these two highly touted freshmen classes? Let’s set aside a comparison of Cook and Thomas for purposes of this article, as they probably do not provide the same variance that can be found in comparisons of Oden-Sullinger and Conley-Craft. As Cook and Thomas actually served/serve similar roles, acknowledging Cook’s superior outside shooting and Thomas’ superior ability to play on the interior, the point guard and big man positions provide the richer comparisons.
Although Oden led the team in scoring his freshman year at a rate of over 15 points per game, his real presence was on the defensive end. Commentators raved about Oden’s ability to shut down the lane and overmatch smaller opponents, as evidenced by his average of over 3 blocked shots per game. Oden wasn’t just a big body that pushed others around though. He worked hard on his game, played with a high level of intensity, and by most accounts was a great teammate. While Oden could score and rebound with the best (his 24 points and 15 rebounds in the national championship game stands out as his signature game), he was never a polished player. His pure physical presence led to a multitude of dunks and short bank shots, where he would simply leap above his defender.
In contrast, Jared Sullinger has some polish to his game. He has displayed a nice shooting touch, especially on his free throw’s, which is important given his propensity for picking up fouls on opponents. Make no mistake, Sullinger is a load to handle just like Oden, but he looks much smoother playing. His form on rebounds is textbook-perfect, and he also demonstrated a solid ability to find the open man out of double teams in Ohio State’s game last weekend against Minnesota. Sullinger is a more natural scorer than Oden was, piling up points with a variety of post moves and bulling his way to the rim.
If you were to take Greg Oden from 2007 and match him against Jared Sullinger from 2011, I think you’d have to give the edge to Oden due to his height advantage and defensive prowess. Fortunately, we have the privilege of watching both these players in Scarlet & Gray, and both should be given credit for putting forth their best effort on the court.
Turning our attention to Conley and Craft, there seems to be a more significant difference in talent. Oden got most of the attention in 2006-07, but Buckeye fans who watched the games are likely to comment that it was Conley who drove the team and had the more visible impact on many games. Conley had quickness to burn, and could easily get to the rim for floating shots that dropped home more often than not. Like Oden, Conley was a defensive standout, playing the passing lanes and running the break to perfection. He really came alive in the NCAA Tournament and showed an ability to rise to the occasion of big games, causing him to rocket up the draft chart all the way to the 4th pick, a position that he almost certainly would not improve upon by staying for another year in Columbus.
Craft does not have the quickness of Conley, but he definitely has the intelligence that coaches crave in a point guard. Craft understands the pace of the game and plays within himself. He relies much more on hustle and physical defense than Conley, and probably has a better shooting touch, especially from outside. One point about Craft that may not be as apparent is that he could be seen as the more inspirational player, largely due to his hard work on the defensive end. You can easily picture him being the leader of a team, a “glue” guy in the mold of Gerry McNamara from Syracuse’s run to the title in 2003.
The Craft-McNamara comparison may be especially appropriate given that Syracuse went to the championship in the year that both McNamara and Carmelo Anthony were freshmen standouts for the Orange. Hopes of another freshmen-led run to the title game are growing with each win in Columbus, but it may be more intriguing to consider the ongoing nature of the Ohio State team. Like McNamara, Craft is most likely going to be a college athlete for four years. It remains to be seen whether or not Jared Sullinger will follow the example of Anthony by jumping to the pro’s after only one season, or if he will return for a sophomore campaign.
My impression is that Sullinger may actually stick around, for multiple reasons. As discussed in one of our recent radio hours, the NBA is almost guaranteed to have a lockout before the next season, thus making the leap to the pro’s somewhat less appealing at the current time. Furthermore, Sullinger definitely does have room to improve his game in college. Perhaps most importantly though, his fellow freshmen, which include not only Craft but also Thomas, Sibert, Smith, and Weatherspoon, will be around to form the nucleus of what could be an incredibly good Ohio State team for the next couple years, and the opportunity to play with that squad may be just enticing enough for Sullinger to stay. Of course, all bets are off if the Buckeyes do manage to reach the pinnacle this year and claim the championship.
This whole conversation is wrapped up in the larger issue of one-and-done’s in the college game. While it’s exciting to have players like Oden and Conley for one year, is it more exciting to have players like Craft, who are with the program for four years? While we enjoyed the talents of Oden, Conley, and Cook for one season, we’ve gotten to see David Lighty progress over the course of a “career” at Ohio State, and he has endeared himself to fans with his leadership and work ethic. Just look at his freshman numbers compared to the statistics he’s posting this season:
2006-07: 3.7 PPG; 2.3 RPG; 1.0 APG; 0.5 SPG; 37% FG; 20% 3PT
2010-11: 13.1 PPG; 4.0 RPG; 3.6 APG; 1.8 SPG; 47% FG; 46% 3PT
The recruiting game becomes a double-edged sword, as the program that gets the best players may only get them for one year, thus forcing them to build a team year after year with little continuity. Oden and Conley may have been particularly unique players, but what about former Buckeyes such as Kosta Koufos and BJ Mullens? Did they truly help the Ohio State program with their one-and-done stops in Columbus?
My personal preference is that the NBA keep its age rule in place, even though it effectively perpetuates the culture of one-and-done’s in the college ranks by disallowing players to jump to the league straight out of high school. It is beneficial to the pro game to have players coming in with some intermediate experience, and overall the college game is probably better with the talent than without it, even if it is just for one year. However, for my money I’d love to see more David Lighty-types wearing the Scarlet & Gray rather than players who are just passing through the Schott. This isn’t a criticism of individual players making financial decisions that are right for them personally. It’s just that as a college basketball fan, it is more exciting to watch players who grow over the course of several college seasons, as they provide a solid foundation on which to build a program that brings pride to the school.