COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) – Sam Thompson is an easy-going guy.
The Ohio State swingman smiles a lot, likes talking and has a lot of friends.
But mention that some think this might not be a great Buckeyes team and he clearly grows agitated.
“No. I don’t agree at all,” he said, an edge to his voice. “This is one of the best teams I’ve been on since I’ve been here. It has some competition from my freshman year team just because it went to the Final Four. But we have a great team this year.”
Attempt to replace 57 percent of the points, 66 percent of the 3-pointers, 60 percent of the assists and 55 percent of the steals from most teams and it would be a reasonable expectation that there would be a falloff.
Yet for 20th-ranked Ohio State – with starters LaQuinton Ross, Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Aaron Craft, and top reserve Amedeo Della Valle all moving on – there are high hopes heading into Friday night’s opener against UMass-Lowell.
In all 14 of Thad Matta’s seasons as a head coach, his teams have won at least 20 games. His latest group went 25-10 and was ranked as high as No. 3 in early January, but was knocked out of the NCAA tournament in the round of 64 by Dayton.
Despite losing three starters, Matta likes this 2014-15 team.
“It’s an interesting collection of guys,” he said. “In terms of the expectations, I don’t know if I have it set in stone what I’m expecting. There’s going to be a growth period, but we have to accelerate the growth. We have to push guys. We always tell guys going into (a season), ‘Those that don’t get onboard get left behind.'”
The Buckeyes have two returning starters: 6-foot-7 dunking machine Thompson and enigmatic 6-11 post Amir Williams. Shannon Scott steps right in at the point in place of whirling-dervish Craft. Anthony Lee, who graduated from Temple early and is playing his final season of eligibility with the Buckeyes, will likely be the power forward.
Rotating into those spots and the fifth starting spot will be freshmen D’Angelo Russell, Jae’Sean Tate, David Bell, Keita Bates-Diop and Kam Williams along with last year’s sixth man Marc Loving and backup big man Trey McDonald.
“We have a well-balanced group,” said Loving, who started fast and then fizzled a year ago as a freshman. “Shannon and Sam can score, you can throw the ball into Amir. We have a lot of weapons and you really have to pick your poison of who you want to stop.”
One guess: Russell, a gifted scorer as a prepster in Louisville, Kentucky, will provide some of the punch, along with classmate Tate, the son of former Buckeyes center Jermaine Tate.
Craft, who set the defensive tone for the last four years, is gone, but Williams doesn’t think what figures to be a far more athletic team will have any problems on that end of the floor.
“Our defense is probably the best in the Big Ten, I would say,” Williams said. “I feel like everyone can defend their position, and multiple positions.”
Defending UMass-Lowell might not be too difficult. The River Hawks were 10-18 in their first Division-I season in 2013-14, and were picked to finish last in the nine-team America East in the preseason coaches’ poll.
“We learned how difficult a transition this is going to be,” coach Pat Duquette said. “This is going to take time and it’s a long process, but we want to continue to build our foundation by developing a strong work ethic, team culture, style of play and an identity.”
Gone is leading scorer Akeem Williams, but the other four starters return, led by senior guard Chad Holley (10.3 points per game).
UMass-Lowell’s lone game against a ranked opponent last season came in its opener at No. 7 Michigan, a 69-42 loss.