Daniel Chi / Asst. photo editor
As the preseason No. 4-ranked team in the country, the Ohio State men’s basketball team opened the season with lofty, and perhaps unreasonable, expectations.
After all, the Buckeyes have to replace the scoring production from two departed stars – last year’s leading scorer Jared Sullinger, who was picked up by the Boston Celtics in the NBA Draft, and four-year starter William Buford.
Through six games Buckeye Nation is starting to see where that production will come from. Maybe not surprisingly, the three returning starters from last year’s Final Four squad, junior guards Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith Jr., and junior forward Deshaun Thomas, are leading the team in scoring.
But thanks to what seems to be a fundamental change in coach Thad Matta’s philosophy, the Buckeyes are getting a nice boost from their bench as well.
In his eight seasons at OSU, Matta has gained a reputation for relying heavily on his starting five, while giving maybe a player or two sparing minutes off the bench. Though the sample size is small, it appears Matta intends to invest in his bench more this season. Two bench players are averaging more than 18 minutes per game so far for the Buckeyes, and another is getting more than 15 minutes of play.
Last season, OSU’s leading reserves averaged about 11 minutes of action per game.
Granted, some of these statistics might be bolstered because OSU has won convincingly in a few of its games, allowing Matta to give younger players extra in-game experience. But even in a loss to No. 2 Duke on Nov. 28, Matta played sophomore guard Shannon Scott and sophomore center Amir Williams for 20 and 27 minutes, respectively.
“I’m probably a little bit more comfortable with the depth that we have, and just the different things that we can present when we’re on the court,” Matta said.
The “different things” speak to the versatile lineups Matta has at his disposal when he taps into his reserves. Scott is a speedy guard, and when played alongside Craft, the duo can wreak havoc in transition. Though he is still developing an offensive skill set, the 6-foot-11 Williams is OSU’s most imposing interior defender. And then there is sophomore forward LaQuinton Ross, who might be one of the best pure-scorers on the team.
“I think that’s one thing that our team is great at, being versatile,” said Ross, who leads all reserves with 9.3 points per game.
The importance of Ross’s ability as a scorer can’t be understated. In OSU’s eight losses last season, the bench averaged a meager 3.12 points per game, and was outscored 65-25. With a more reliable scoring punch coming from the reserves this year, OSU’s starters don’t face the burden of carrying the entire scoring load.
“It’s a big key to this team,” said Thomas, the team’s leading scorer. “Guys like Ross and Scott coming off the bench and scoring really well, that helps us out as a team.”
Matta’s deeper rotation has a positive effect that extends past game days. With more spots conceivably up for grabs, players are fighting in practice to prove that they deserve playing time.
“Everyday in practice we all go after it,” Scott said. “We all know that we have to compete every day. It makes us all better as players.”
For now, Matta said he is just looking for some consistency.
“Each guy has to get a couple things that we can hang our hat on every time we take the court,” Matta said. “And it can’t be from one game you do this to the next game you don’t do that. That’s when you become a really good basketball team.”