Ohio State Basketball: Why Buckeyes' Bench Will Be the Key to Postseason Success

Scott Henry@@4QuartersRadioFeatured ColumnistFebruary 19, 2014

Ohio State's Marc Loving launches a jumper against Illinois, trying to break an epic slump.
Ohio State's Marc Loving launches a jumper against Illinois, trying to break an epic slump.Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Ohio State's second victory of the season over Illinois had very little in the way of aesthetic value, as might be expected from a game that finishes with a 48-39 score. Games that predated the shot clock featured more offense.

The four Buckeye starters not named Aaron Craft combined to shoot 27.3 percent (6-of-22) from the floor, including 20 scoreless minutes from center Amir Williams.

Those four startersLenzelle Smith Jr., LaQuinton Ross, Sam Thompson and Williamshave combined for a .526 effective field-goal percentage this season. As a whole, the Buckeyes rank 106th in the nation in offensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy.

Scoring is hard for this bunch. Therefore, any player with a hot hand should be ridden for all he's worth, whether he started the game on the court or in a folding chair wearing warm-ups.

Ohio State coach Thad Matta isn't always keen on using his reserves when the games ramp up post-Presidents Day. This season, though, he may not have a choice. His bench players will decide how long the Buckeyes' postseason mystery tour lasts.

Getting Back That Loving Feeling

Until he dropped eight straight points on Illinois to blow Saturday's game open, Buckeye freshman Marc Loving was scoreless for the entire month of February.

And he knew it. Loving told the media after the game, "It was like a monkey climbed off my back," as reported by Ari Wasserman in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Expectations rose for Loving after a strong start to Big Ten play. He averaged 10.3 points in wins over Purdue and Nebraska and the Buckeyes' overtime loss at Michigan State. He was surprisingly on the floor for OSU's late comeback and the entire OT period in the latter game while Ross sat and watched.

The Illinois game was a welcome salve for a player whose production had dropped to three points over his last six games. Not three points per, mind you, but a total of three points.

"It felt good to see the ball go in for once," Loving said, as reported by the Toledo Blade's David Briggs. "I feel like from here on out, that will help me play with a little more confidence." It's only appropriate that a man named Loving shook his slump a day after Valentine's Day.

Before Loving got on his run, fellow reserves Trey McDonald and Amedeo Della Valle each chipped in a basket. The clock wore down inside three minutes before that trio was broken up by Aaron Craft subbing in for Della Valle. By that time, the four-reserve lineupalso featuring newly minted backup Shannon Scotthad pulled the lead from 30-29 to 44-32, and the Fighting Illini had no fight left.

Production from players like Loving, Scott and Della Valle doesn't have to be spectacular, but it does have to be consistent. When a big outside shot is needed, Della Valle needs to live up to his reputation as a sniper. A 78 percent free-throw shooter, Loving will be best served attacking the rim and drawing fouls.

With OSU's starters struggling so mightily to produce on a consistent basis themselves, Matta won't be doing anyone any favors by going back to his usual tight rotation.

The Few, The Proud, The Playing

Since Ken Pomeroy began tracking bench minutes in 2006-07, Matta's Buckeye teams have routinely posted triple-digit rankings. While Pomeroy's formula is not based on a strict game-by-game accounting of non-starters' minutes, its percentages can frequently skew high or low for that very reason.

Here are the figures for Matta's usage of his bench since that season, along with the top scorers for each team:

Ohio State's Bench Minutes Since 2006-07
YearBM %BM Rk.Top ScorerPPGNCAA Finish
2013-1429.3204LaQuinton Ross14.4???
2012-1326.0273Deshaun Thomas19.8Elite Eight
2011-1223.5308Jared Sullinger17.5Final Four
2010-1118.2339Jared Sullinger17.2Sweet 16
2009-1017.0347Evan Turner20.4Sweet 16
2008-0924.8299Evan Turner17.31st Round
2007-0823.9308Jamar Butler15.0DNQ
2006-0732.1114Greg Oden15.7Runner-Up

That '06-07 team had one of OSU's most talented benches in recent memory, including the likes of Daequan Cook, David Lighty and Othello Hunter, but it was also led by the oft-hobbled Greg Oden.

Pomeroy's formula isolates the top five players by percentage of minutes and treats all others as bench players, whether they started games or not. Anyone who received additional minutes during Oden's seven-game injury absence was still treated as a bench player in this formula.

With an Evan Turner, Jared Sullinger or Deshaun Thomas usually on hand, Matta's recent teams have not lacked for go-to scorers the way this one has. The Buckeyes have failed to score 65 points in six of their last nine games.

It's recklessly optimistic to project Loving, Scott or Della Valle as candidates to fill the scoring void in this final month, but Matta is at least willing to give them some minutes to try.

Loving, for one, doesn't care if his minutes come because of Matta's confidence in him or a lack of the same in Ross, as long as he gets to play. "I feel like I can provide a spark off the bench with my scoring ability and help us propel to the next level," Loving told the Plain Dealer.

Loving can be a solid all-around scorer as long as the first shot falls. Della Valle is a non-stop hustler, but that's essentially his entire value when the shot's not working. Scott, of course, is a defensive spark plug who's apparently gotten over his compulsion to take wild shots at every opportunity.

None of Ohio State's reserves are stars in the making, but they don't have to be. They merely have to produce when called upon, because the Buckeyes' starting lineup has proved that it won't succeed against tournament-quality opposition by itself.

For more from Scott on college basketball, check out The Back Iron. Now Playing: Poll Dancing, TBI's official Top 25 ballot. See where Ohio State ranks against the nation's elite.


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