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No rest for the weary: Bench nonexistent in Big Ten play

Zach Tuggle / The Lantern

Last week, a reporter jokingly asked coach Thad Matta about the impact that senior walk-on and blogger extraordinaire Mark Titus’ potentially season-ending labrum injury will have on the depth of the Buckeyes’ bench.

“Well, you thought when Evan [Turner] went down things were bad,” Matta said light-heartedly. “We’re going to have to try and fight through this.”

The reality of the situation regarding OSU’s bench appears a bit more serious. The team’s four starting guards, juniors Evan Turner, David Lighty and Jon Diebler, along with sophomore William Buford, average at least 32 minutes a game. Whether Matta will admit it or not, those numbers point toward potential fatigue by the end of the season.

Seniors P.J. Hill and Jeremie Simmons each average more than 15 minutes a game, but those numbers are a bit inflated thanks to the playing time they received when Turner was sidelined with two broken vertebrae.

In comparison, Michigan State has seven players that average at least 21 minutes a game and only one player, reigning Big Ten Player of the Year Kalin Lucas, averages over 30 minutes a game. Obviously, the Spartans possess more talent, as evidenced by their No. 5 ranking and 9-0 conference record. On the other hand, coach Tom Izzo has done a solid job balancing his players’ minutes in order to keep them fresh for the end of the season.

The Buckeyes appear to lack that luxury. OSU is a guard-oriented offensive team. Their focus is using the playmaking abilities of Turner on offense, which usually results in him taking a shot or getting an open look for another one of the Buckeye guards.

The big men have not played a prominent role. Junior forward Dallas Lauderdale’s offensive game revolves around tip-ins and dunks while senior forward Kyle Madsen relieves Lauderdale for short intervals and occasionally hits an open jump shot.

Coming into this season, speculation abounded that two sophomores could help solve OSU’s interior woes. Seven-foot-tall center Zisis Sarikopoulos and 6-foot-9-inch forward Nikola Kecman were recruited as players with above-average offensive skills, yet both have been buried on the bench this season despite their impressive size.

Before the season started, Sarikopoulos expressed confidence in his offensive abilities.

“I think we are different in the way this team is set up. I know I can score on the block. I like to create action,” Sarikopoulos said. “So if I’m on the block and I’m not going to score, I can find the shooter. I can pass the ball very well.”

Last week, Matta hinted that he was concerned about Sarikopoulos and Kecman coping with the physicality of Big Ten play. Nonetheless, for the second year in a row, Matta has been relying heavily on his starters. According to kenpom.com, OSU ranks 327 out of 347 NCAA Division I teams in bench minutes.

In order for the Buckeyes to attain a high seed for the NCAA tournament, they will need to finish the regular season strong, unlike last season when they lost four of their last seven games before the Big Ten Tournament. That might be hard to achieve considering the major minutes OSU’s starters have been logging.

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