Men's basketball: Ohio State's defense, rebounding have flaws

By The Columbus Dispatch  • 
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Ohio State coach Thad Matta looked forward to having a lot of experienced players returning from a team that finished one win short of a second consecutive Final Four last spring.

It did not automatically follow, though, that the Buckeyes would pick up this season where they left off, roaring through five weeks of February and March on an 11-game winning streak before it was ended by Wichita State.

“We’re still trying to hit our stride,” Matta said this week.

A game at 17th-ranked Marquette (2-0) this afternoon will provide the best evidence yet — and maybe for the entire nonconference schedule — of how capable the No. 10 Buckeyes (2-0) might be of walking the walk they did a year ago.

“They’re a team that’s very physical both offensively and defensively,” Matta said of the Golden Eagles. “They’ve got some veterans that have logged (minutes) on some great basketball teams Marquette has had.

“You’re going into what I would consider, in mid-

November, a Big Ten-type arena in terms of the atmosphere and the team that we’re playing. You hope that we’re able to (draw from) all the games we’ve been in before.”

Understandably, perhaps, given the time of the season, the Buckeyes’ play has been uneven in their first two games: wins over Morgan State a week ago and Ohio University on Tuesday.

In each, their defense gave up too much penetration and struggled to maintain an effective level of intensity and execution for 40 minutes. Ohio shot 53.6 percent from the field in the second half and reduced a 17-point deficit to five with four minutes to play before Aaron Craft secured the victory, making seven of eight free throws and scoring nine of his team’s last 12 points.

“As old of a basketball team as we might think we are, there are still situations and times where we need to continue to get better,” Craft said.

But, he added, “having them come back the way they did, making big play after big play down the stretch, and us having to come back and make a play of our own, that’s something that’s going to help us later on.”

Matta has said that his defenders’ rotations to help one another have been sub-par, and it is noticeable when his guards, hamstrung by the new hand-check rules, are giving up drives to the basket that they would have stopped in the past.

Noticeable, also, against Ohio was the Buckeyes’ failure to block out for defensive rebounds in the second half. The Bobcats’ comeback was helped by uncontested offensive rebounds that produced 14 second-chance points.

“I think we are assuming someone else is going to get the rebound,” Matta said. “Those are things that we’ve put a huge priority on (in practice), and we did not do a good job of that.

“They forced some rotations on us. I thought Amir Williams was tremendous (on Tuesday) in terms of his activity on the defensive end. But if he’s going to (leave the basket area to guard) penetration, somebody has to sink and take his spot.”

Williams, a junior, had his first double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds against Ohio. He was far better than in the opener, after which Matta told him he was “the first player I’ve ever seen that plays with more energy in practice than in the game.”

Williams’ performance, and that of his backup, Trey McDonald, could be a huge swing factor against Marquette. The Golden Eagles’ starting center, Chris Otule, is a 6-foot-11, 275-pound, sixth-year senior, and their two starting forwards are 6-7 and weigh around 230 pounds.

First off the bench is 6-8, 290-pound Davante Gardner, the Big East’s sixth man of the year last season and a preseason all-conference first-teamer this season.

Those four are among Marquette’s top six scorers through two games.

bbaptist@dispatch.com

@BBaptistHoops

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