Reserves Face Uphill Climb

Last season, Ohio State head coach Thad Matta employed a notoriously short bench and relied upon a group of ironmen to carry the load. This year, a few young reserves like freshman Jordan Sibert are fighting for playing time but face a tough challenge to get there.

Thad Matta has three big reasons why some of his freshmen have not seen much playing time this season.

In alphabetical order, they read as follows: William Buford, Jon Diebler and David Lighty. With the way the three upperclassmen are playing for No. 2 Ohio State, their head coach has not found a lot of opportunities to insert younger players into the lineup.

"Everybody is like, ‘Put (the freshmen) in, put them in, put them in,' but for whom?' " Matta said. "That's the big thing. Those guys are playing pretty high-level basketball right now. A lot of times people are saying ‘put so-and-so in,' but the guy out there is pretty good. Everybody wants utopia."

That perfect world has been hard to find for the likes of J.D. Weatherspoon, Lenzelle Smith and Jordan Sibert this season. The trio of freshman has been on the outside looking in when it has come to playing time and the prospects for seeing more action might not be very great.

Tonight, the Buckeyes face Oakland (8 p.m., Big Ten Network). It is their sixth game in a stretch that sees them play seven non-conference foes in less than 18 days. Before the stretch began, Matta said the games might provide opportunities for his younger players to audition for more extensive action.

Entering Tuesday's contest with UNC Asheville, Sibert had seen action in two more games than Weatherspoon and Smith and appeared to be solidifying himself as Matta's eighth man.

To get onto the court, the coach has said young players need to prove that they can be trusted. Asked what that entailed, Sibert said the primary concern is effort.

"Just play hard," he said. "He knows nobody's perfect. He doesn't expect anybody to be perfect. He just wants us to play hard. As long as we show that we can (do that), we'll get more and more playing time as the season goes on."

Another key is defense. Matta consistently preaches the concept to his younger players – often with mixed results. When he inserted Sibert into the lineup Dec. 12 against Western Carolina with less than 13 minutes left of the first half, it was the only thing the coach told the freshman to be concerned about.

"I said, ‘You're going in today at the 13-minute mark. All I care about is defense. If you score, that would be great,' " Matta said. "I think that eases him into it."

When they have seen action, the reserves have not always acquitted themselves well. Following the 85-60 victory against Western Carolina, Matta lamented the second-half performance put on by his bench players.

"I think they know they didn't play particularly well," he said. "Our transition defense there at the end was not very good but by the same token just getting out there and going against guys different than what they're accustomed to is big for them. Playing in front of people is always good."

In that contest, Weatherspoon had seven points while Sibert added six and Smith had three assists. Sibert's 18 minutes of action were one shy of his season high to that point. As a team, however, OSU outscored the visitors by only eight points in the final stanza.

One freshman who has seen plenty of action is forward Jared Sullinger, who has started each game this season. He too had to first earn Matta's trust before being thrust into action. Sullinger said he likes what he has seen out of his classmates.

"I know you all don't see the talent that Jordan and Lenzelle and J.D. and all the guys on the bench have, (but) lot of us see it in practice," he said. "These guys really can play. As the season goes on, if they get that chance it's just going to be something special."

Sibert was rated a four-star prospect by Scout.com while Smith and Weatherspoon were each three-star prospects. Smith has been slowed by off-season wrist surgery and Weatherspoon was widely regarded as raw out of high school.

In contrast, Diebler, Lighty and Buford have each scored at least 1,000 points during their OSU careers and have been mainstays in the starting lineup for the past several seasons. In addition, the Buckeyes entered Tuesday's game second in the nation among least-penalized teams.

The chances of bumping even one of those three players from lineup range from slim to none. It all adds up to an imperfect situation but one that could carry the Buckeyes deep when March rolls around.

"Like I tell our guys, I'd like to play ‘everybody gets 19 minutes a game, everybody gets seven shots a game, everybody gets two free throws a game,' " Matta said. "It just doesn't work that way. Those guys are playing good basketball right now and I'm very pleased with what I'm seeing. It makes it more challenging for those guys to get the opportunity to get that crack. It's just part of being in a program, I think."


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