Ohio State men’s basketball coach Thad Matta has proven once again that he is one of the nation’s top recruiters.

A season after three of his five starters graduated — Dallas Lauderdale, Jon Diebler and David Lighty — his fourth-ranked Buckeyes still have the firepower to hang with the country’s perennial elite. Featuring a dominant frontcourt led by returning NCAA Freshman of the Year Jared Sullinger and a backcourt led by the nimble Aaron Craft, Matta’s squad is still quite formidable.

When No. 20 Michigan (6-2 Big Ten, 16-5 overall) travels to Columbus on Sunday to take on Ohio State (6-2, 18-3), the two teams will be tied atop the Big Ten standings. And taking control of first place won’t be easy for the Wolverines, as the Buckeyes haven’t lost at home in 38 straight contests.

At Big Ten Media Day in October, Matta and Craft sat down with the Daily to discuss the upcoming season.

The Michigan Daily: Is it difficult to replace guys like Lighty, Diebler and Lauderdale?

Aaron Craft: It is definitely different. There were a few times in the summer, when we went in the locker room, went in the weight room, and those three guys weren’t there. Not just from leadership standpoint, but their personalities are gone. It’s definitely different. We’ve grown into it now I think, and it’s a cool experience. The freshmen have been really understanding. Even though Jared and I and (forward Deshaun Thomas) have only been here a year, they’re still willing to listen and ask us questions, which is awesome.

Thad Matta: When you’ve got one senior, one junior who’s never played for you, and the rest are sophomores and freshman, it makes a big challenge. … The great thing I like about this team is they know we’ve got a lot of work to do until we play our best basketball.

TMD: Were you ever worried that Sullinger wouldn’t return for his sophomore season?

TM: He had told me from day one (he was returning) — it was not even an issue. The only thing is if we had been fortunate enough to win the National Championship, he may have gone. … He enjoys college. You know, he’s 19 years old, and he’s a great young man. He loves the university.

TMD: How has he grown over the offseason?

AC: He’s still the goof-around, mess-around Jared, but he knows when it’s time to get things done now. He knows when things need to be taken serious. And I think the biggest thing is he was able to discipline himself to lose the weight that he did. That’s just an awesome testament to the character and person that he is.

TMD: What do you see out of Michigan this season?

TM: I think Michigan’s got great experience back. It was unfortunate that the young man (Darius Morris) left. I loved him as a player. But I think you look at what they have coming back, I view them as a great basketball team this year, I really do.

AC: The experience that they have coming back is always a plus. Just losing the point guard, I think (freshman point guard) Trey (Burke is) a great player, and he could step into that role really well. Beilein is a great coach, and he’s going to put them in the best position to win.

TMD: Did you notice that Burke showed up to last year’s Michigan-Ohio State showdown in Columbus…

AC: … wearing Michigan gear. Yeah, our ticket lady was really angry about that. They got tickets and were right behind our bench with Michigan stuff on, and she wasn’t very happy about that. But good thing we played well and won that game, so that kind of cooled her off a little bit.

TMD: Are you excited to play against Trey like in your high school days?

AC: I’ve known him — we both played AAU under the same name of All-Ohio. And he knows Jared and (Diebler) really well. I’ve seen him, I’ve played against him a few times. He’s an awesome kid. He’s definitely grown since I’ve met him and his family, so it’ll be fun to see him up there.

TMD: Any trash talking between you two?

AC: Nothing major. He came into our gym this summer before he left, played with us, kind of talked to us. A little jeering here and there, but nothing major.

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