January 10, 2013

Small ball lineup in Buckeyes' arsenal

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Follow Noon | Givler | Axelrod | Birmingham

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Looking at the makeup of the Ohio State basketball team's roster, it's clear that there's plenty of pieces for Thad Matta to play with, but not a lot of diversity. This year's Buckeyes' squad has plenty of slashers and defenders, but very few shooters to compliment them.

As a result, Matta's options don't always include your tradition positions in a 1-5 basketball lineup. And sometimes, the odd man out is Ohio State's center.

That was the case last Saturday, when the Buckeyes faced a double-digit lead in the second half of their eventual 74-55 loss to Illinois. Looking to find a spark, Matta debuted a lineup less than three minutes into the second half that consisted of 6-foot-7 forward Deshaun Thomas, 6-foot-8 forward LaQuinton Ross, and guards Lenzelle Smith Jr., Aaron Craft, and Shannon Scott.

OSU's small ball lineup found limited success against the Fighting Illini, scoring six points in six points while surrendering eight. Thomas- the Buckeyes' de facto center in that group- said that Matta and OSU assistant Chris Jent made the decision to go small on Saturday in an effort to match the Illini's lineup.

"Coach and Coach Jent was just like seeing the matchups and they was going small too so they wanted to match their intensity," Thomas said. "We wanted more scoring, so we put 'Q' out there."

While Matta admitted that he spent the latter part of Saturday's loss searching for a successful lineup combination, he also said that the Buckeyes' smaller lineup is something that he's been contemplating using since the start of the season.

"We've talked about that from day one of using that lineup," Matta said. "I don't know how much we will but it wasn't like let's just- we had actually rehearsed it."

The drawbacks of the lineup are obvious. With no true center on the floor, a team that already ranks 49th in the country in rebounding loses any of the few post presences that exist on its roster.

It could also lead to some issues on the defensive end of the floor, where the Buckeyes will have trouble enough defending players like 7-foot Indiana center Cody Zeller. But against a team like Illinois, who doesn't possess a low post threat on the offensive end of the floor, Thomas said that he's plenty comfortable playing center on both ends of the court.

"I was kind of comfortable with it because I had to guard a five-man and their five-man had to guard me, and it was kind of difficult for him to guard me in that second half," Thomas said. "I got a couple easy buckets in transition and drove to the hole so I kind of liked that suggestion they did with the second half lineup."

Aside from creating mismatches, Matta's small ball lineup allows the Buckeyes to get their top five scorers on the floor at the same time. Neither of OSU's two primary centers, Evan Ravenel and Amir Williams, rank higher than seventh in terms of scoring for the Buckeyes, and thus Thomas, Ross, Craft, Scott, and Smith or forward Sam Thompson, could find themselves on the court together when OSU is in desperate need of points.

"We can use any lineup at anytime," Scott asserted. "We just gotta get the guys on the court that are producing at the time just to make the best decisions to get us back into the game."

But while the unique lineup has only been used in an act of desperation this season, Matta said that he hasn't ruled out any combination of players for his starting lineup. Now three games into conference play, the OSU coach is still trying to make the most of his interchangeable parts, and is willing to experiment for as long as it takes to find the right group.

"The motivation would be I want to attempt to get off to a good start in the game," Matta said of any potential changes to his starting lineup. "And finding those guys that have a flow to them is what I'm still looking at."


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