I’m far from the only person who thinks that Thad Matta should extend his bench. In fact, it’s a point that’s been discussed ad nauseaum by every analyst during the last two tourney runs and this season as well. However, the reason why I think Thad should play more Buckeyes might differ a little bit from popular opinion.
Last season, the Buckeyes were picked by many to win the NCAA Tournament. Regardless of whether or not people picked the Bucks, the common denominator was the sole identified weakness: depth. It’s not rocket science. With a lack of depth comes fatigue and the risk of foul trouble stinging that much more. Only while that was a constant risk for OSU, that was far from their downfall.
Does anyone honestly believe that depth played any significant role in the Buckeyes’ tournament loss last season to Kentucky? The Buckeyes ran into a young, talented Wildcat team that played one of their best games of the season. They matched up well with Ohio State (Josh Harrellson attacked Sullinger on the offensive end among other things), and as we’ve learned, the NCAA tournament is less about the best team winning and more about matchups, momentum, and a little bit of luck. Ohio State got a 2-for-16 shooting performance from William Buford and still had a shot in the air to win the game. In that game, Dallas Lauderdale logged five minutes and Deshaun Thomas played just three minutes. The rest was the unit of Craft, Diebler, Lighty, Buford, and Sullinger.
Why do I open up this still fresh wound? Because it’s a look into how Thad Matta views his bench in tight games. Fairly consistently throughout his time at Ohio State, he has maintained a 6-7 man rotation. In past years, it was players like Jeremie Simmons, P.J. Hill, Matt Terwilliger, Walter Offutt, and a younger Dallas Lauderdale that saw limited playing time because of this strategy. This time, however, Thad Matta has a highly touted freshman recruiting class that is hardly being used at all.
The exception to Matta’s short bench? His nine-man rotation with the Greg Oden freshman class. That year, his starting five was Oden, Othello Hunter, Ron Lewis, Jamar Butler, and Mike Conley Jr. His meaningful bench consisted of Ivan Harris (20.0 minutes per game), Daequan Cook (19.7), David Lighty (16.3), and Matt Terwilliger (10.6). The highly regarded freshmen Cook and Lighty demanded playing time, while Harris provided three-point shooting and Terwilliger was depth to spell Oden. As you’ll recall, that team went on to the title game.
So far this season, Matta has kept to seven players in bigtime matchups against Florida and Duke. Jordan Sibert (16.9 minutes) and Evan Ravenel (12.6 minutes) are the two that have seen extended minutes outside of the starting five. In the two primetime matchups, the rest of the bench has been barely used (Shannon Scott – 5 minutes and Sam Thompson, J.D. Weatherspoon, and Amir Williams – 1 minute each).
If you look at the ESPNU Top 100 rankings, four of the Buckeye freshman are in the top 55 (Scott -34th, Williams -43rd, Thompson – 45th, Ross – 53rd). So, while there is no surefire stud in that group, it’s a solid class that should start to get eased into playing time. Notice I said “eased in”. One of the things Matta has done that I don’t agree with is the “hockey subs”, if you will, bringing in three freshman and sophomore J.D. Weatherspoon all at once. By not mixing these guys in with some of the starters as he’s done with Sibert and Ravenel, he’s setting them up to struggle. If it was up to me, I would ease Shannon Scott in for a couple minutes each game to give Craft a breather and see if he can distribute to Thomas, Sullinger, and Buford. I would also get Amir Williams some minutes to see if he can defend top low post players and give him some easy buckets like Ravenel has been able to get. I think Thompson can provide a lot of what Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Jordan Sibert are, although I realize there is a numbers crunch involved there. All J.D. Weatherspoon is doing is averaging 5.1 points and 2.1 rebounds in just over eight minutes per contest. His athleticism is incredible, and I’d like to see if he can fill-in for Deshaun Thomas and keep a fast-paced rebounder that can run the floor in the game.
The under the radar wild card is Ross, who will become eligible on Friday when Autumn Quarter concludes at Ohio State. Ross is a three-point threat, something the Buckeyes have been searching for outside of Buford. Some recruiting rankings had Ross the highest rated player in OSU’s class, and he may have had a chance to start if not for his grades situation from high school which made him academically ineligible. Ross obviously won’t play this weekend at Kansas, but it’s not far-fetched to think that he’ll be in action soon against some of the lighter opponents on OSU’s plate before Big Ten conference play kicks off.
With Sullinger’s injury scare, it’s a cautionary tale that the next guy has to be able to step up and contribute, especially when talented, fully capable freshman are having a hard time finding the floor. Matta prides himself on the fact that his teams are as well-conditioned as any team in college basketball, so fatigue isn’t going to force his starters out of the game often. Instead, it will take Thad Matta trusting his young guys with key playing time. In turn, those youngsters must produce to keep that time. It’s worth a shot from Matta, because if the past is any indication, his freshmen will make him look good.
(Photo: Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)