COLUMBUS — Lenzelle Smith Jr. doesn’t need a calendar to know when Ohio State’s basketball season is drawing near.
After being around him for going on four years, Smith can just look at coach Thad Matta.
“You can tell when coach Matta is kind of falling back a little bit and is taking it easy,” Smith said with a grin. “And then you can tell when basketball season is coming around. Coach has a lot of juice, a lot of energy, he’s ready to get things under way.”
This year, for a change, Matta doesn’t have to introduce a bunch of newcomers to college-level hoops.
Having lost eight players early to the NBA Draft in his nine seasons with the Buckeyes, the Ohio State coach is accustomed to acquainting first-year players to the college game while plugging holes left by premature departures.
Deshaun Thomas, the Big Ten’s leading scorer, surrendered his senior season last spring to be drafted in the second round by the San Antonio Spurs.
But Matta has a veteran crew back that includes two seniors and seven juniors from a 29-win squad that came within a whisper of its second straight trip to the Final Four.
“We have a chance to have a really, really good basketball team,” said Matta, who is 250-73 with the Buckeyes and 352-104 in his 13 years as a head coach, also at Butler and Xavier. “I’ve loved the energy, the cohesiveness. It’s early. I’d say this: I’m very excited about the season.”
Here’s five things to watch with the 2013-14 Buckeyes:
Go-go guards: The Buckeyes return four starters, led by senior guards Aaron Craft and Smith, who have won 94 games in their career already.
Craft, of course, is a pesty defensive guard who opposing teams and fans despise for his physical play but is adored by Matta, Ohio State’s fans and his teammates. A pre-med major and academic whiz, he has been known to totally disrupt offenses with his quick hands and uncanny intuition.
He completely changed his inconsistent jump shot in the offseason.
“It just didn’t feel as smooth as it should have been,” he said. “Right now we’re at a good position. We put in a lot of work.”
Smith also is a terrific defender, but is as likely to score four points in a game as he is 24. He’s got to be more dependable night after night.
Q factor: Thomas averaged 19.8 points a game and led the Big Ten in scoring. He also was not afraid to take a big shot.
LaQuinton Ross, a 6-foot-8 scorer who came alive in Ohio State’s NCAA run to the regional championships last year, will be counted on to make up for a chunk of that lost offense.
“I don’t feel like it’s a lot on me right now,” said Ross, a junior who average 8.2 points a game last season. “We’ve got almost the whole team coming back. I think everybody is going to contribute this year. But I take it upon myself to try to make up for some of the scoring that we’re losing.”
Big enigma: Amir Williams, a brawny 6-11 McDonald’s All-American, has the skills to dominate inside but was often invisible a year ago. A starter the last 26 games, he averaged 3.5 points and 3.9 rebounds a game.
He claims he’s bigger and stronger this year, and that he can has figured out how to avoid foul trouble and being timid on the boards.
“Rebounding is a key for me this year that I need to focus on more,” he said. “Coach explained to me, my play is important this season so he can’t have me playing 10 to 12 minutes for the game because of foul trouble.”
Taking a step: Sam Thompson, a jumping-jack swingman, provides highlight-reel dunks but, like Smith, sometimes has blended into the background. He cannot afford to do that again this year.
Same for backup point guard Shannon Scott, a spectacular defender who has never been much of a shooter. If either develop into scoring threats, it’ll take the burden off the others and present real problems for a defense.
Built on D: Last year’s Buckeyes went 29-8, running Matta’s record to 13 for 13 in terms of 20-win seasons as a head coach. They also won the Big Ten tournament.
Defense was the difference then, as it will be now.
“We’re never going to go away from our defense,” Matta said. “Those are the building blocks that you have.”