Matta’s rare changes help Buckeyes win two straight

Published 2:31 am Thursday, January 29, 2015

COLUMBUS (AP) — Ohio State coach Thad Matta doesn’t change his mind frequently.

Yet in the past few weeks he’s made two significant switches.

First, he abandoned the 2-3 zone that his team had played for most of the first 13 games this season, changing to a man-to-man defense.

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Then, he went to a more mobile but decidedly shorter lineup.

He’s uncertain just how long he might stick with a lineup where the tallest player for long stretches is 6-foot-7.

“Do we stay with it? I don’t know,” he said while putting his Buckeyes (16-5, 5-3 Big Ten) through their final paces before Thursday night’s home game against No. 16 Maryland (18-3, 6-2). “It’ll be interesting to see just how it unfolds.”

Anthony Lee, a 6-9 Temple transfer who was basically the third-team center, has started the last two games. But Matta has also replaced Lee for 6-7 Marc Loving for long stretches of time, sacrificing rebounding for versatility, speed and quickness.

Matta also put 6-4 freshman Jae’Sean Tate into the lineup, giving him room to create havoc on the front line.

The Buckeyes are uncertain if Matta’s version of small ball is just something he has pulled out of his tool box or if it’s something he’s committed to utilizing from now on. The coach isn’t saying.

“We have a lot of lineups that can be really effective on the court,” said point guard Shannon Scott. “For the past two games, (the other team) didn’t really play big, 6-11 guys at center. They’ve been playing 6-8, athletic people. So the lineup we had the last game and before that just show what we can really take advantage of.

“I can see a small lineup that we can always go into in games,” he said. “But I don’t think our big men are not going to play. They’re still going to have a big role on our team.”

Maybe so, but there’s no question the starting center’s role has diminished recently.

Enigmatic big man Amir Williams, a 6-11 McDonald’s All-American who has never played up to expectations, has moved to the bench. Ohio State fans are frustrated by his inability to throw his chiseled body around in the paint.

A starter all season, Williams never left the bench unless it was to listen to a huddle during a timeout in Sunday’s 82-70 win over No. 23 Indiana. He only played 3 minutes in the previous game, a 69-67 win at Northwestern.

Now it’s almost as if the Buckeyes have been taken over by two freshmen.

D’Angelo Russell, the reigning Big Ten player (and also freshman) of the week, has been a phenomenon. He’s averaging 19.4 points a game — the best in the nation among freshmen — and he has hit for 27.5 points a contest in the Buckeyes’ meager two-game winning streak.

The 6-5 do-everything guard from Louisville is already being touted as a top-five pick in the NBA draft, should he elect to leave Ohio State after a season.

Then there’s Tate, as close as the Buckeyes have to a runaway train. He muscles opponents around at both ends of the court, treats a loose ball as if his name is stenciled on it and seems to be in the middle of every scrum.

Asked what he adds to the Buckeyes, he said, “Just doing the little things. Everything’s important. If that’s rebounding, running the floor, diving on the floor for loose balls (or) running the correct play at a correct pace. That’s what toughness is.”

“Assertiveness is something he’s never lacked,” said Matta, who said Tate “played like he was 7-5” against Indiana.

Scott, who is a senior, is impressed by what he’s seen from the first-year players, also including 6-7 athletic swingman Keita Bates-Diop and 3-point marksman Kam Williams.

“A lot of freshmen come in and don’t know what to do. They just try to fit in,” he said. “They’ve done a great job, basically, of coming in here and forcing their will and wanting to be one of the top guys on the team. When you have attitudes like that, you can have a great player.”

Or more.


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