Buckeyes’ fate hinges on defensive dedication

By The Columbus Dispatch  • 
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ERIC ALBRECHT | DISPATCH
Guard Shannon Scott, defending Albany’s Mike Black in a Nov.?11 game, helped spark the OSU defense with 62 steals this season, second on the team to Aaron Craft’s 66.

When Ohio State’s season ended in the Final Four last year, coach Thad Matta said he turned the page quickly and began thinking about what the team would need to make another run. 

With Jared Sullinger and William Buford leaving the lineup and Deshaun Thomas the only proven scorer returning, he knew what it had to be. 

The defense, he said, would have to be “at an all-time high” to help the Buckeyes not only stop opponents from scoring but also convert those stops, as well as turnovers, into easy baskets for themselves.

“When we’ve done that,” Matta said recently, “we’ve been very, very good.”

The Buckeyes needed much of the season to figure that out consistently, but the defense they played down the stretch of the Big Ten schedule and in the conference tournament this past weekend has given them renewed optimism heading into the NCAA Tournament.

They were ranked No. 4 nationally before the season began, dipped as low as 18th when they lost three of four games in early February, and rose again, to No. 10, last week after winning their last five games of the regular season, including at No. 2 Indiana. The final Associated Press poll, released yesterday, has the Buckeyes at No. 7.

“I just think we have a better awareness for one another,” said Aaron Craft, who, along with fellow guard Shannon Scott, was voted by Big Ten coaches to the conference’s all-defensive team. “There was definitely a stretch this season where we went a little solo and we weren’t really connected on defense, and it only takes one or two guys to really mess up the entire possession, especially playing great teams.”

One of the tenets of Matta’s defensive philosophy is that the players defend as if they are linked. He calls it “five guys connected,” with players moving as if joined by a string, with one’s move causing another’s, resulting in another’s. At any given time, one defender is guarding the ballhandler, another is helping or ready to help on the ballhandler, and a third has one eye on the ballhandler.

“When we play as one defensive unit — when we’re rotating, when we’re pressuring the ball, when we’re jumping the passing lanes, when we’re helping each other — we’re a great defensive team,” guard Sam Thompson said. “When guys aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do — when I’m not worried about the guy next to me — that’s when we have some trouble.”

After allowing four opponents to average better than one point per possession during the span in which they lost three games — to Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin — the Buckeyes recommitted themselves at that end of the floor.

Matta also made some adjustments, giving more playing time to Scott off the bench and, along with that, playing with a smaller lineup that moved the 6-foot-7 Thomas to center when the matchups allowed it.

In the final five games of the regular season, with Craft and Scott forming a terrifying tag team, Ohio State had 40 steals and scored 94 points off turnovers.

“When you have both of them out there, you really have to be sure with your passes and your cuts and your screens,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “They make it difficult to run your offense.”

Now, the rest of the nation will see how difficult it is. It’s no secret that the Buckeyes will go as far in the tournament as their defense takes them.

“To be a good defensive and rebounding team, I think, gets you a long ways in the tournament,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “As the old motto goes, whether it’s baseball, football or basketball: Defense wins championships. You’ve got to score some points, no question about it, but a lot of times it’s easier to score points off your defense.”

In the past five years, 11 of the 20 teams that have made the Final Four have ranked among the top 10 nationally in defensive efficiency, and five more among the top 20. Ohio State was second last year and is eighth this season.

On the other hand, four of the past five national champions have ranked first or second in offensive efficiency.

“Defense is going to give you a shot,” Matta said, “but I think scoring is going to win it.”

bbaptist@dispatch.com

@BBaptistHoops

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