It's not easy, of course, to replace a national player of the year. Just ask Oklahoma head coach Jeff Capel about life after Blake Griffin sometime. And, in theory, it should have been especially difficult for Ohio State to replace Evan Turner, who entered the NBA after winning 2010 national POY honors as a junior.
After all, Turner did everything for the Buckeyes last year. He was their point guard, their featured scorer, and far and away their best defensive rebounder. The ball was more or less always in Turner's hands. Take every cliche about the difficulty of replacing your point guard and add every stock phrase about the challenge of losing your leading scorer. Then multiply by five. That was the task facing Thad Matta this year.
Now look. I'd say the coach has navigated life without Turner pretty well. His Buckeyes are 10-0 and ranked No. 2 in the nation in both major polls, behind only Duke.
To be sure, it's still December. Ohio State's schedule has been, for lack of a better term, uneven. That 18-point win on the road at Florida in mid-November seemed like a big deal at the time. But now that Jacksonville has also beaten the Gators in Gainesville, maybe a convincing win at the O'Connell Center's not such a great measuring stick after all.
Still, all any team can do is play the games they've been given. And even against a schedule that Ken Pomeroy rates as merely the 189th toughest in the country, Ohio State has been undeniably impressive. If anything the most remarkable aspect of this Buckeye team is its balance on both sides of the ball. Over their first ten games OSU has scored 1.18 points per possession while allowing opponents to score just 0.82 points per trip. Both numbers are outstanding. How has Matta pulled this off without Turner?
The easy answer is that Matta did it with recruiting. (If you've been paying attention the last five years or so, he's pretty good at that.) And in the person of 6-9 Jared Sullinger, Matta may quite possibly have the highest-performing freshman he's ever had in Columbus. Greg Oden, Mike Conley, Daequan Cook, Kosta Koufos, Byron Mullens -- they all became first-round NBA draft picks following their freshman years at Ohio State. But if (and it's a big "if") Sullinger can keep doing what he's been doing, he will have surpassed all of the above in terms of effectiveness as a college player.
Let's take a closer look not only at Sullinger but also at his talented and experienced running mates.
Sullinger is the new Turner.
Literally. At every other position Matta has the same starting lineup as last year, one that features William Buford, David Lighty, Jon Diebler, and Dallas Lauderdale. The only difference is that Sullinger has replaced Turner in that starting five. Last year Turner took 31 percent of the Buckeyes' shots while he was on the floor. This year the attempts are spread around a little more evenly, as Sullinger accounts for 26 percent of the shots during his minutes. But Sullinger's value to a team trying to replace a national player of the year has been immense. In effect the freshman's presence has allowed a veteran like Diebler to simply continue doing what he's done before on offense: function as a highly-efficient supporting player. Defenses collapsing on Sullinger in the paint also have to account for Diebler, who is hitting 48 percent of his threes.
Then again lots of Buckeyes are "the new Turner."
Coming into the year we all knew that Ohio State would be talented. The only question mark attached to this team was how smoothly the Buckeyes would function on offense without their point guard, Turner. So far the answer is: very smoothly indeed. The point guard duties have been farmed out, with Lighty and Buford upping their assist rates and freshman Aaron Craft coming off the bench and functioning as what some people like to call a "true" point guard (meaning he dishes a ton of assists and never shoots). Craft has struggled with turnovers, but on the whole the point-guard-by-committee approach has worked beautifully. Matta's team has committed a turnover on fewer than 17 percent of its offensive possessions and, as amply demonstrated by the Buckeyes' 55 percent two-point shooting, players are getting the ball in position to score. Consider that part of Turner replaced.
Matta the coach should thank Matta the recruiter.
I mean, seriously, it's almost not fair. In Sullinger, Lauderdale, and 6-6 freshman Deshaun Thomas, Matta has three options between 6-6 and 6-9 that he can deploy at will. None of those three are particularly foul-prone, all are available pretty much whenever the situation demands them. Sullinger is Sullinger (see below). The 6-8 Lauderdale, as he's done for years in Columbus, blocks shots like a seven-footer. (Opponents are making just 44 percent of their twos against this D.) And Thomas makes 58 percent of his twos while taking on a Turner-sized role in the offense during his 17 minutes per game. To say Matta has weapons is putting it mildly.
Did I mention Jared Sullinger is good at basketball?
Sullinger's overall offensive efficiency is excellent, and if he were better than a 70 percent shooter at the line that efficiency would be stratospheric. The freshman draws nearly eight fouls for every 40 minutes he plays, a number that harkens back to the aforementioned Blake Griffin. Not only has he taken over Turner's duties as an outstanding defensive rebounder, Sullinger is also very good on the offensive glass. He makes 61 percent of his twos and, perhaps most impressively, absolutely never commits a turnover. I repeat: if this keeps up Jared Sullinger will be the most effective freshman Thad Matta has ever coached.
We'll learn much more about the true potential of this Buckeye team after New Year's, of course, when OSU plays 18 games against what projects to be a very tough Big Ten. But at the moment life after Evan Turner is looking pretty good in Columbus, thanks to Jared Sullinger and the coach who landed him.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider . John also praises Thad Matta and other fellow downstate Illinoisans on Twitter: @JohnGasaway. College Basketball Prospectus 2010-11 is now available on Amazon.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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