Buckeyes have vets this year

Published 4:23 am Thursday, October 29, 2009

COLUMBUS — It’s as if Ohio State coach Thad Matta has graduated from teaching kindergarten to advanced calculus.

For a change, he doesn’t have a roster chock full of newbies. For a change, his starting center didn’t move on to the pros. For a change, when he looks at his players he’s not met by freshmen with blank stares and nervous smiles.

The Buckeyes are hardened veterans, with almost everyone from last year’s team back including a couple of players who weren’t able to play because of injury or because they were sitting out a year after transferring.

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Matta, 127-46 through five years at Ohio State, has had freshmen dominate his team for the past three seasons. He relishes what lies ahead.

‘‘This is the first time that I can honestly say that this team has been to every Big Ten venue,’’ he said. ‘‘You look at last year’s team, we went to play an ESPN GameDay game at Madison, Wis., on national television — and not one of our players had ever played in the building before. So from that standpoint, the expectation is that they’ve been through it, they have an understanding of what needs to happen and how it needs to happen.’’

Back are all five starters from last year’s 22-11 squad, not counting captain and team defensive pillar David Lighty, who broke his foot seven games into the season and received a medical redshirt.

The headliner is junior Evan Turner, a mainstay on the U.S. team at the World University Games this past summer who was a first-team All-Big Ten selection last year while averaging 17.3 points, 7.1 rebounds, four assists and two steals a game.

He expects maturity to equal more wins.

‘‘The games we lost in the crunch time, (now) we’re expected to know how to pull ourselves out and win those games,’’ he said. ‘‘Coming in in tough situations, you know how to go harder and not break.’’

Matta plans to use the 6-foot-7 swingman as a point guard more this year. When he comes up the floor he’ll see Lighty and Big Ten freshman of the year William Buford (13 ppg) on the wings, Jon Diebler (94 3-pointers) at shooting guard and, when he returns in November from a broken finger, Dallas Lauderdale (70 percent FG pct., almost 70 blocked shots) in the post.

The Buckeyes can also trot out guard Jeremie Simmons (45 3-pointers) and energy guy P.J. Hill, along with 7-0 UAB transfer Zisis Sarikopoulos, a gifted player for his native Greece’s U19 World Championship Team.

‘‘It might not have been a good thing on my part, getting hurt, but it might have been good for the team,’’ said Lighty, fully recovered and with two full seasons of eligibility remaining. ‘‘Because everyone had to be held accountable on the team.’’

The only player missing from a year ago is 7-0 B.J. Mullens, a backup big man who came into the program and left it as a raw, unknown commodity. He was the third consecutive one-then-done center to pass through the program (Greg Oden, Kosta Koufos), all of whom we first-round NBA draft picks.

Ohio State benefited this August from an NCAA-approved team trip to play several games in Canada. Players bonded and got a jump on what figures to be a challenging non-conference schedule against the likes of North Carolina, California, Syracuse, Butler and Florida State.

A lack of experience won’t be a problem for a team with several players who have been to the NCAA title game just two seasons ago, not to mention trips to Gainesville, Fla., Chapel Hill, N.C., West Lafayette, Ind., and East Lansing, Mich.

‘‘We’ve got so much potential on this team that it just kind of gets everybody excited,’’ Diebler said. ‘‘We see glimpses of how good we can be and that just excites everybody. We’ve all been through the battles; let’s put it all together and see where it takes us.’’