Jeff Barnett / Lantern photographer
Thad Matta and his team will tell you it’s their focus on defense that has gotten them their 24-1 record this season. But a key detail that often goes overlooked is how the team rarely fouls its opponents.
Ohio State is the second-best team in the country in terms of average fouls per game, with 14.3. In turn, the Buckeyes lead the country in opponents’ free throws attempted per game at 10.8 — 3.5 fewer than second-place Florida.
Matta’s emphasis on defensive fundamentals and positioning is critical to his team’s success in that area.
“I think that you foul when you’re not playing hard because you automatically put yourself out of position,” Matta said. “That’s something we’ve tried to get these guys to understand.”
Keeping opponents off the charity stripe is a key factor to the team being No. 6 in the nation in scoring defense by allowing only 58.3 points per game.
Matta and his team critique the film after each game they play. Often, they discuss the difference between a “good” foul and a “bad” foul. The fouls that come from lack of effort are the ones that Matta and his players try to avoid.
“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,” fifth-year senior forward David Lighty said after the Jan. 22 win against Illinois.
The Buckeyes’ rotation usually features only seven players, whose ability to stay on the floor, out of foul trouble, is key to the team’s success. Fortunately for the Buckeyes, their key players have yet to put themselves in a position where foul trouble has cost them significantly.
Arguably the team’s most important player, freshman forward Jared Sullinger, averages fewer than 2.3 fouls per game — an impressive number for a post player who relies heavily on physicality.
“I think Jared has really grown as a defensive player early on this season,” Matta said.
Freshman point guard Aaron Craft’s 69 fouls are the most on the team, but he only averages 2.8 fouls per game. Craft uses lateral quickness to beat his opponent to the spot and avoid blocking fouls. Junior guard William Buford and senior guard Jon Diebler average 2.4 fouls and 1 foul per game, respectively.
Matta has campaigned throughout the season for Lighty, who commits just two fouls per contest, to receive the Defensive Player of the Year award for his work on the perimeter.
The 6-foot-5 swingman has quickness comparable to Craft’s, but has the size to guard both post and perimeter players. Lighty’s defensive versatility is one of Matta’s favorite attributes.
In Saturday’s loss to Wisconsin, Lighty spent time guarding the 6-10 Jon Leuer, and later switched to 6-1 Badger point guard Jordan Taylor after he caught fire from beyond the 3-point line in the second half.
“I think at times we’re all kind of on a different page defensively, but when we’re making those runs and shutting teams out, we’re playing as a unit on the defensive end,” Diebler said. “We all have each other’s back. … That’s what makes good defensive teams.”