Ohio State Basketball: Why the Buckeyes Have the Best Defense in the Nation

Scott PolacekFeatured ColumnistDecember 23, 2013

COLUMBUS, OH - DECEMBER 18:  Aaron Craft #4 of the Ohio State Buckeyes wrestles the ball away from Jarvis Threatt #4 of the Delaware Blue Hens in the first half on December 18, 2013 at Value City Arena in Columbus, Ohio.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Coming back from eight points down in the final 50 seconds of a game under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden just isn’t supposed to happen at the collegiate level.

Maybe if Reggie Miller was out there to break Spike Lee’s heart by draining a couple of three-pointers and stealing an inbounds pass to shock the Knicks, but something like that just doesn't happen from a college team that had scored a mere 50 points in the game’s first 39 minutes.

Yet, that is exactly what did happen when Ohio State kicked its nation’s best defense into gear against Notre Dame on Dec. 21.

The Buckeyes instituted a full-court press and shackled the ball-handlers of the Irish, and in one rosy-cheeked flash, Aaron Craft was hitting Lenzelle Smith Jr. on the baseline for the game-winning basket.

Of course, for good measure, Craft and Smith combined to knock the ball loose one last time as Notre Dame attacked the basket in the final seconds. It was one of those rare memorable non-conference wins in December in a sport that is almost solely defined by what happens in March.

It was only possible because the Scarlet and Gray have the best defense in the entire country.

Don’t just take my word for it though. Ken Pomeroy ranks the Buckeyes as the No. 1 team in the nation in his pace-adjusted defensive-efficiency metrics, which is a much better system of comparing different defenses than merely looking at points allowed.

Pomeroy’s rankings take into account a number of factors, including pace of play, strength of schedule and even “luck.”

COLUMBUS, OH - DECEMBER 11:  Shannon Scott #3 of the Ohio State Buckeyes attempts to steal the ball away from Alex Francis #23 of the Bryant Bulldogs in the second half as Trey McDonald #55 of the Ohio State Buckeyes helps defend on December 11, 2013 at V
Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

However, if we want to look at traditional metrics as well, Ohio State is only giving up 56 points a contest and is yet to allow a single team to crack the 70 mark. In fact, only Ohio University reached 65 points in what was a closer-than-expected Buckeye State tussle.

The defense and headlines about the defense start with Craft and Shannon Scott at the perimeter, and for good reason.

The argument can be made that at an individual level both guards rank as top five defenders in the nation, but when they are paired together it becomes nearly impossible for opposing ball-handlers to establish any type of rhythm.

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 30:  Malcolm Armstead #2 of the Wichita State Shockers has his shot blocked by Amir Williams #23 of the Ohio State Buckeyes in the first half during the West Regional Final of the 2013 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Staples Ce
Harry How/Getty Images

When the Buckeyes decide to press, it becomes a victory in and of itself just to get the ball across half court against Craft and Scott. Just ask Notre Dame.

However, Ohio State isn’t just the best defense in the nation because of its excellent perimeter play from Craft and Scott. There are elite defenders at every level of the court that Thad Matta can unleash on the opposition.

While LaQuinton Ross is on the floor for his scoring prowess and sometimes struggle on defense, Smith Jr. and Sam Thompson provide length, quickness and athleticism at the forward spot.

Each has the ability to stay in front of small and shifty ball-handlers and are lengthy enough to influence shots and get in passing lanes. Plus, while Ross may struggle on defense, he and Smith are the best rebounders on the team outside of Amir Williams.

That improved rebounding from Williams down low is another reason the Buckeyes have the best defense in the country. He is pulling down nearly eight boards a night despite the fact that he is only playing less than 25 minutes a game. His career high coming into the 2013-14 season was 3.9 rebounds a contest.

Williams is finally becoming the game-changing presence down low that Ohio State fans were hoping to see when he arrived on campus. Along with the rebounding, he is swatting better than two shots a game and helping to cover for any guards that get beat off the dribble.

Finally, the Buckeyes have one of the best coaches in the country who puts an emphasis on defense calling the shots and making in-game adjustments for all those elite defenders. Matta put on a coaching clinic in the final minute against Notre Dame by using Scott and Smith Jr. as roaming defenders (a la safeties in football) while Craft applied suffocating ball pressure.

That decision resulted in a number of Irish turnovers, which ultimately made the difference in the game. 

While Ohio State still has offensive issues that it needs to solve if it wants to compete for a Big Ten title and Final Four berth, it has the best defense in the nation.

That may just be enough to add a couple of banners to the Schottenstein Center rafters come March.


Follow and interact with Bleacher Report writer Scott Polacek on Twitter @ScottPolacek.