In the past few days, fans and reporters alike have bashed both the coaching and play of the Ohio State men’s basketball team in their Sweet 16 loss against Tennessee.
From the amount of minutes senior center Kyle Madsen played to the defensive strategy in the second half, it is clear many Buckeyes have not come to terms with the loss. However, there is an aspect of the game in which the Buckeyes struggled that was apparent all season: lack of bench play.
In the closing minutes of the game, the team was uncharacteristically sloppy. There’s a reason for that: They were exhausted.
Although four of the starters averaged 34 minutes or more a game, coach Thad Matta repeatedly stated during the season that playing the starting five plus Madsen put the Buckeyes in the best position to win. However, that was not true against the Volunteers.
Tennessee rotated 10 players, which allowed them to rebound relentlessly and pressure the Buckeye ball-handlers.
Let’s be clear on one fact: Matta’s most successful teams have featured short benches. The 2006-07 Buckeyes, who were national runner-ups, had a core of four players that played 29 minutes or more a game. In 2003-04, when Matta coached Xavier to the Elite Eight, five of his players averaged 25 minutes or more per game.
On the other hand, it’s hard to fathom why at the very least senior guard Jeremie Simmons did not see much action this season. Last season, Simmons played 10 minutes or more in every game. In 20 games this year, he played 10 minutes or less, including four in which he didn’t play at all. Against the Volunteers, Simmons made three 3-pointers in the first half.
“I just had to do whatever I could to help the team,” Simmons said. “They were doubling Evan [Turner], and he did a good job of passing the ball.”
After shooting 56 percent in the first half, the Buckeyes shot a measly 32 percent in the second half. Yet, despite OSU’s second-half shooting struggles, Simmons did not see any action. Matta said he at least thought about inserting Simmons back into the game.
“I did, and I just didn’t go with it,” Matta said.
As far as critiquing the defense, one does not have to be John Wooden to figure out the Buckeyes were dominated on the boards. Tennessee forwards Wayne Chism and Brian Williams resembled Dwight Howard and Shaquille O’Neal for most of the game.
At 6-foot-9, 246 pounds and at 6-foot-10, 280 pounds, Chism and Williams are naturally taller and stronger than Ohio State’s two big men, Madsen and junior Dallas Lauderdale. But the Buckeye big men should not have been out-rebounded 41-29. Multiple times, the Volunteer behemoths were playing volleyball on the offensive glass.
Nevertheless, rebounding should have never been an issue for Ohio State in this game. The Buckeyes have 6-foot-9-inch sophomore Nikola Kecman and seven-footer Zisis Sarikopoulos sitting on the bench, both of whom saw nothing more than garbage time the entire year.
While Kecman and Sarikopoulos are Euro-style big men, meaning they often spend more time outside of the paint than in it, they are very capable rebounders. Had they been given consistent playing time all year, it’s likely Kecman and Sarikopoulos would have eased the burden on Lauderdale and Madsen and helped the Buckeyes on the boards.
In retrospect, this team probably achieved. Matta and his staff absolutely got the most of this team and the truth is they rode Turner’s coattails.
But with two contributing seniors and Turner likely departing, coupled with the infusion of six freshmen, it is almost certain the Buckeyes will have a lengthier bench next season.