Thad Matta Trading Offense For Defense Determines Ohio State’s Fate

Posted by Jim Root on November 18th, 2016

The annual late-October release of KenPom’s preseason rankings is a sneaky-big holiday for college basketball fans. Though Ken Pomeroy himself admits that his system takes up to a month to work out the kinks and accumulate enough data to be reliable, it is still fun to see where teams fall given the effectiveness of his past rankings. One Big Ten team that turned heads this preseason was Ohio State, which came in at #13 despite not making the NCAA Tournament last year. A primary reason for that ranking was Pomeroy projecting the Buckeyes’ defense as the eighth-best in college basketball. The Buckeyes finished last season at 43rd in that metric, but KenPom heavily weighs coaching history and continuity of minutes. To those points: Thad Matta’s average defensive ranking at Ohio State in the last 12 years is #21, and the Buckeyes returned their top six players in minutes from last season. Still, jumping from a solid-not-spectacular 43rd to among-the-elite eighth would be a major leap. Is this group of Buckeyes capable of that level of defensive improvement?


Matta needs Lyle to step up in order for the Buckeyes’ defense to truly thrive (Mike Carter, USA Today Sports).

Matta’s best defenses have come in various forms over the years. The 2011-12 squad, led by Jared Sullinger, dominated the defensive glass, while the 2013-14 team utilized the inimitable peskiness of Aaron Craft and the quick hands of Shannon Scott to force turnovers and harass perimeter shooters. This exhibits that Matta will mold his defense to the talent of his roster, and the strength of this year’s squad is definitely in its length and athleticism up and down the lineup. In the backcourt, JaQuan Lyle is a 6’5” point guard capable of guarding multiple positions, while Jae’Sean Tate, Keita Bates-Diop and Marc Loving are interchangeable parts on the wings and at the four. Up front, Trevor Thompson is one of the Big Ten’s best shot-blockers (7.3% block rate last season), or Matta can play freshman Micah Potter, who is more of a positionally-sound defender that can switch screens with the wings without much issue. On paper, using that length and versatility to switch almost every screen and bother drivers and shooters, the Buckeyes’ defense absolutely has top-10 potential.

However, one slight snare in that strategy is the increasing offensive necessity for Matta to play 6’1″ junior college transfer CJ Jackson and 6’2″ hyper-efficient gunner Kam Williams. Jackson has been a revelation so far this season, assisting on an outrageous 53.3 percent of the team’s baskets while he’s on the floor, while Williams’ shooting (he hit a torrid 44 percent from deep last year and is already 7-of-10 to start this year) opens up the floor in a big way. Overall, playing these two smaller guards will almost certainly help juice the Buckeyes’ lagging offense (just 10th in the Big Ten in adjusted efficiency last year and currently 37th nationally), but it will also hurt their ability to switch and play interchangeably on the defensive end.

Weighing that tradeoff is why Matta makes the big money, and it is a decision that will play a crucial factor in determining the Buckeyes’ fate this season. The 3-0 Buckeyes have so far notched two unconvincing wins against low-majors Navy and North Carolina Central along with a solid home win over Providence on Thursday night, but the flexibility to choose between an elite defensive lineup and a more balanced offensive one should allow Matta to play to each particular game’s needs. And if the defensive group ever figures out how to score at a more efficient level (Loving and Bates-Diop each hit 46 percent of their threes two years ago, so there is some precedent), then preseason #13 ranking from KenPom won’t seem nearly so surprising.

Jim Root (8 Posts)

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