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Buckeyes’ shallow strategy comes from ‘gut feeling,’ Matta says

Courtesy of Ned Mulka / Daily Illini

Coach Thad Matta said he is concerned about possibly playing his seven key rotational players too much at the expense of his bench. But the truth is, it’s those seven players who have gotten his team to 20-0, and he doesn’t plan on making any changes.

“It’s hard to explain,” Matta said Monday. “It’s a gut feeling.”

That gut feeling is causing him to pile up minutes on the players he’s relied on to carry his team to the nation’s No. 1 ranking, subsequently using the depth on his bench sparingly.

In Saturday’s win against No. 20 Illinois, Jared Sullinger, David Lighty and Jon Diebler each played 40 minutes with Aaron Craft and William Buford playing 31 and 26 minutes, respectively.

Neither Dallas Lauderdale nor Deshaun Thomas played more than 12 minutes. Those seven were the only players OSU used.

The risks of relying on only seven players to win games arise when one of those players gets in foul trouble or suffers an injury. By not getting minutes now, players such as Jordan Sibert and Lenzelle Smith Jr. might be unprepared to step in during such cases when the team needs them most.

Sibert averages 10.3 minutes per game on the season while Smith averages 5.7. But those numbers are inflated from less meaningful non-conference games, as the two have hardly seen the court since the start of the Big Ten schedule.

Matta has made it apparent he doesn’t create contingencies for those sorts of things; his coaching philosophy prevents his conceived lack of depth from being a problem for his Buckeyes.

“Yeah, I am (concerned), but what are you going to do?” Matta said. “I recruit them to play 40 (minutes). They don’t like to come out. I’d love to play everybody 20 minutes and everybody take the same amount of shots. It doesn’t work that way. I do want to continue to bring our bench along without a doubt. I think that’s huge for us.”

Instead of pondering the “what-ifs,” Matta emphasizes the fundamentals during practice that keep his players from earning fouls and allow them to stay in the game.

“He always says, ‘If you’re fouling, you’re not playing hard.’ So, that’s one thing we take into consideration when we’re out there, and just playing smart and knowing the system,” Lighty said. “We’re coaches out there pretty much, so we’re a part of him out there on the court.”

The importance of depth was exhibited Saturday in Champaign, Ill., when Thomas’ two 3-pointers off the bench were a part of a critical 14-0 run in the second half to ensure the victory.

But Diebler believed it was the team’s defense that spurred the run. Matta’s system and emphasis on that end of the floor allows for anyone on the roster to be plugged in and handle his defensive responsibilities.

It’s the only way to prevent a serious drop-off if one of the usual seven players is forced out of action.

“We all have each other’s back. … That’s what makes good defensive teams. But when you have guys on the same page, and knowing that if one of us gets driven by and you have help on the right and left side, that just makes it so much harder to score against us,” Diebler said. “So when we’re making those runs, I think defensively as a unit we’re all playing as one and we’re pretty hard to score against.”

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