Men's basketball: Buckeyes go small to get big results

By The Columbus Dispatch  • 
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LOS ANGELES — The move was made for one simple reason six weeks ago, in a game against Northwestern that was either team’s for the taking with five minutes to play.

Ohio State coach Thad Matta put his five quickest defenders on the floor together to try to get more hands in the faces of Northwestern shooters who were killing the Buckeyes with three-pointers.

A star was born that night, although no one knew it at the time.

Ohio State’s “small lineup,” without a true center on the floor, has become one of the signatures of the Buckeyes’ 11-game winning streak that has carried them to the brink of a second consecutive appearance in the Final Four. They play Wichita State tonight in the West Regional final, with the winner advancing to a national semifinal next Saturday in Atlanta.

“That group has really gained a lot of confidence in terms of what they can do,” Matta said yesterday after the Buckeyes practiced at Staples Center.

Matta likes to say that who starts games is not as important as who finishes them, so it is instructive to note that he has gone exclusively with the small lineup for basically the final 10-plus minutes of the past three close games Ohio State has played: against Wisconsin in the Big Ten tournament final two weeks ago, against Iowa State last Sunday in Dayton, and in a regional semifinal against Arizona on Thursday night that the Buckeyes won on a three-point shot by LaQuinton Ross with 2.1 seconds left.

Ross, a 6-foot-8 face-the-basket forward who can shoot and drive, was in the game because a back-to-the-basket center was not.

“They put you in a predicament,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “You try to match up with them, and as you do, they end up sometimes getting the advantage.”

After the Buckeyes closed out Northwestern with a 12-2 run and won by 10 points Feb.14, coaches saw the benefits of the lineup for their offense as well as their defense.

“We were having trouble scoring the basketball,” assistant coach Chris Jent said. “Putting another versatile guy out there on the floor obviously is going to help you, and having someone in LaQuinton who can shoot it and also put the ball on the floor definitely helped us in that area.”

Ross, a skilled shooter who has taken longer to develop his defense and ball-handling, has become more and more of a factor since tournament play started three weeks ago. He scored 17 points against both Iowa State and Arizona.

“When we go to our small lineup, it kind of allows us to get on runs,” guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. said. “We get those stops (on defense) and it’s off to the races, and before you know it, the teams are calling timeouts. It fuels us.”

There was some concern at first how the lineup would fare against bigger lineups, but that started to dissipate in the Big Ten tournament final against Wisconsin.

“Wisconsin made a substitution and went back big, and we said, ‘Hey, let’s give this a couple of possessions and see what happens,’ ” Matta said. “That’s when Aaron (Craft) was guarding (6-10 Jared) Berggren in the post and they threw the ball (away) and we scored in transition the other way. It was like, ‘Hey, this could be problematic on both ends.’ ”

Wichita State, with its size on its front line, poses somewhat the same challenge as Arizona did with its size and rebounding ability. But although Ohio State coaches were concerned about it, the Buckeyes ended up negating it by forcing the Wildcats to play smaller themselves.

“In past games, we had kind of gone to the small lineup out of necessity, to match other people,” assistant coach Jeff Boals said. “They shifted to what we were doing, which obviously took another big guy off the floor. Now you’ve got a situation where one of their bigs is guarding LaQuinton Ross at the end of the game, and they don’t want to leave (Deshaun Thomas) in the corner, and they mess up the switch and got us a good look at the basket.”

bbaptist@dispatch.com

@BBaptistHoops

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