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Ohio State Basketball: Why Can't the Buckeyes Score Against Zone Defenses?

LINCOLN, NE - JANUARY 20:  Aaron Craft #4 of the Ohio State Buckeyes grabs a rebound over Tai Webster #0 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers during a game at Pinnacle Bank Arena on January 20, 2014 in Lincoln, Nebraska. (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)
Eric Francis/Getty Images
Scott PolacekFeatured ColumnistJanuary 22, 2014

The Ohio State basketball program has lost 31 regular-season games in the last five years under Thad Matta. It has won 138 regular-season games in that same time frame.

It just so happens that four of those 31 losses have come the last four times the Buckeyes have taken the floor.

It wasn’t that long ago that Matta and company were ranked No. 3 in the country after a perfect 15-0 start. The Buckeyes were seen as the best defense in the country and a squad that nobody would want to come across in March.

EAST LANSING, MI - JANUARY 07:  Shannon Scott #3 of the Ohio State Buckeyes looks to get around the defense of Gary Harris #14 of the Michigan State Spartans during the second half at the Jack T. Breslin Student Events Center on January 7, 2014 in East La
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

In fact, Ohio State even earned national respect during its first loss of the season at East Lansing against the Big Ten's most talented team in Michigan State. The Spartans held a 17-point lead in the final minutes of the contest and appeared to be on cruise control to an impressive victory until Aaron Craft, Shannon Scott and the Buckeyes’ swarming defense went to work.

Ohio State came storming back and even had a chance to win the game in regulation until Keith Appling blocked Scott’s game-winning layup attempt. The fact that the Scarlet and Gray eventually lost in overtime didn’t seem to matter as much as the narrative surrounding the Buckeyes’ “heart” and “grit.”

So much for those narratives.

Any optimism in Columbus after the 15-1 start has long since faded with defeats at the hands of Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska. That’s right, Nebraska.

It was the Cornhuskers’ first win over Ohio State since 1985, which just so happens to be before any of the current players were even born.

Of course, whether it is officially time to panic or not depends on what your preseason expectations were in the first place, as Eleven Warriors points out:

Even if Buckeye Nation is starting to come to terms with the fact that this just doesn’t appear to be a Final Four-caliber squad, the struggles are still disappointing and rather unexpected.

The commentators during the Nebraska loss speculated that there may be some chemistry issues hampering this team, but that is just that—speculation. Perhaps the most damaging tangible evidence of why this team is struggling is the failure to score against a zone defense.  

The Buckeyes had a nine-point lead in the second half against Iowa but faltered when the Hawkeyes instituted a zone defense down the stretch. Nebraska used a zone almost exclusively against Ohio State, and the Buckeyes appeared to be allergic to scoring, which probably wasn’t in Matta’s game plan.

Why exactly can’t Ohio State score against the zone?

LINCOLN, NE - JANUARY 20:  LaQuinton Ross #10 of the Ohio State Buckeyes passes the ball over Walter Pitchford #35 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers during a game at Pinnacle Bank Arena on January 20, 2014 in Lincoln, Nebraska. (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Imag
Eric Francis/Getty Images

The most crippling issue is the fact that Craft and Scott—the two primary ball-handlers on the roster—are simply reluctant to shoot from the outside. The reluctance is understandable considering each guard is shooting 28 percent from behind the three-point line.

However, when the ball-handlers can’t shoot there is a domino effect against a zone defense. If the Buckeyes run a pick-and-roll, the top defender doesn’t have to worry about going underneath the screen and being beaten on a jump shot. That cuts off any possible penetration off the pick, which is virtually what the entire play is predicated on.

What’s more, the rest of the zone defense doesn’t have to worry about helping on the perimeter and can sag further toward more dangerous shooters like Sam Thompson, LaQuinton Ross and Lenzelle Smith Jr. While none of those shooters are lighting it up from downtown, it isn’t much of a stretch to suggest that the shooting would be better if there were more open looks.

Making matters even worse is the fact that the only way to effectively penetrate against a zone is by hitting outside shots early in the game. That would stretch the defense and create the necessary openings for Craft and Scott to slice through, but the defenders can simply sag off the ball-handlers to prevent any drives.

LINCOLN, NE - JANUARY 20:  Aaron Craft #4 of the Ohio State Buckeyes drives against Terran Petteway #5 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers during a game at Pinnacle Bank Arena on January 20, 2014 in Lincoln, Nebraska. (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)
Eric Francis/Getty Images

At this point, Kameron Williams would really help as a lethal shooter and effective ball-handler, but he has been forced to redshirt as he battles back from mononucleosis.

The simple answer to why Ohio State struggles against a zone is because it can’t make perimeter shots consistently, but the Buckeyes need their ball-handlers to at least force the top of the zone to respect the outside. Whether that means moving Craft and Scott off the ball or limiting the time they play together is up for Matta to decide going forward.

There is some good news though Buckeyes fans. With the No. 5 recruiting class (per 247Sports), that includes a number of sharp-shooters coming to campus soon, next year is going to be much better against the zone.

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