Apparently, the best way to end a four-game losing streak in conference play is by having the fortune of playing a squad that is currently stuck in a six-game losing streak of its own.
Ohio State’s victory over Illinois was an affront to offensive basketball everywhere, as both teams struggled mightily from the field in the first half and combined for 27 turnovers. The Buckeyes were able to win and finally break free from their struggles because they got hot from behind the three-point line in the second half.
However, a seven-point win at home against an Illini team that looks downright awful right now isn’t enough to inspire confidence with road trips to Wisconsin and Iowa looming as two of the next three games.
The glass half-full approach would look at the second half of the Illinois game as a potential turning point, with Lenzelle Smith Jr. and LaQuinton Ross hitting multiple threes and the offense looking functional for the first time in a while. A more realistic approach would suggest that had more to do with Illinois than the team that just lost to Nebraska.
Would a switch to the starting lineup or the regular rotation give the Buckeyes a much-needed spark?
Not that long ago, it would have been absurd to even suggest a change to Thad Matta’s rotation. Ohio State was sitting pretty at 15-0 and was ranked as high as No. 3 in the country. The scarlet and gray looked dominant at Marquette, controlled the entire game against Maryland and shocked Notre Dame with an eight-point comeback in the final minute.
Sure, those three programs aren’t exactly Duke, Kentucky and Syracuse, but they also aren’t a bunch of Morgan States, either.
However, despite all the talent in place and the vast potential, something isn’t working for the Buckeyes right now. Perhaps, switching the lineup around somewhat would provide something resembling a boost.
For context, the starting lineup is Aaron Craft, Shannon Scott, Smith Jr., Ross and Amir Williams. Sam Thompson, Marc Loving, Amedeo Della Valle and Trey McDonald all see the floor fairly regularly off the bench, although Thompson plays much more than the other three substitutes.
On paper, Craft and Scott are the defenders, Ross and Smith are the scorers and Williams is the enforcer down low.
Yet, that formula hasn’t been working as of late. It is interesting to note that during the incredible comeback at Michigan State that fell just short, the majority of the impressive work was done with Loving and Thompson on the floor and Ross and Smith on the bench.
It would be somewhat dangerous to draw conclusions from just that one five-minute stretch in East Lansing, though, because the offense is the biggest concern, and that is exactly what Ross and Smith provide. Smith needs to be more consistent, and Ross needs to learn how to dribble without traveling, but they are still the best scorers on the roster.
Perhaps, more shooting is the answer.
Della Valle immediately comes to mind, but so does freshman Kameron Williams. He was supposed to be a major factor in the rotation all year, but he had an unfortunate bout with mononucleosis in training camp and missed too much time. Per Doug Lesmerises of Cleveland.com, removing Williams’ redshirt is not an option in Matta’s mind:
When I asked Thad Matta about shooting answers, he said Kam Williams can shoot it, but he won't pull off his redshirt, would be "selfish"— Doug Lesmerises (@DougLesmerises) January 22, 2014
Giving Della Valle more time certainly is an option, though, but that would also sacrifice some of the defense, which is what this team prides itself on. Still, there is always going to be some trade off with any lineup switches.
Defense is one of many reasons why Craft and Scott are the starters and see so much time together. Yet, for as excellent as Craft and Scott are at creating turnovers and getting out in the open floor, perhaps playing them together for the majority of the game isn’t the answer when it comes to scoring points.
That’s not a knock on Craft (who is one of the best to ever play at Ohio State) as much as it is a comment on the reality of what he and Scott bring to the table.
Zone defenses are able to sag off of both of them as ball-handlers because there is no threat of a perimeter jump shot, which cuts off penetration in the lane and virtually eliminates the effectiveness of the pick-and-roll. It also allows defenders to shade more toward Ross and Smith, which makes it more difficult for them to hit from behind the three-point line.
Another potential option would be going small and picking up the tempo. However, while Amir Williams isn’t exactly Jared Sullinger down low, he has played some of the best basketball of his career this year. Going small—which, to Matta’s credit, he has done at times this year—would create more transition opportunities, but it’s still primarily the same struggling shooters on the floor.
It’s not as if the centers are chucking up threes when they are in the game.
Regardless of whether Matta changes the lineup at all, he needs to stick with who is playing well down the stretch of games. That is what almost carried them to victory in East Lansing after trailing by 17, but on the other hand, many of the players who helped build a nine-point lead in the second half against Iowa were removed for the final minutes.
Had the Buckeyes won that game, perhaps there wouldn’t have been a crises in confidence before the team's trips to Minnesota and Nebraska.