The No. 1 Buckeyes will take a 19-0 record to Champaign, Ill. today for a road contest to be played tomorrow morning. In getting to that point, Matta has primarily relied on a seven-man rotation that has drawn comparisons to last year's "iron five" group.
But while this year's team is not using a number of different players, Matta is finding a different way to utilize his bench.
Entering Saturday's game, just one Buckeye ranks among the top 15 in the Big Ten in average minutes played per game. That would be senior guard Jon Diebler, who is averaging 33.4 minutes.
One season ago, OSU had three players in the league's top 10 among minutes played. Diebler was second at 37.2, David Lighty seventh at 36.3 and Evan Turner ninth at 35.8. This season, Lighty's average is down to 30.5 minutes per game and junior guard William Buford's average has dropped from 34.4 to 30.2.
In other words, it is not that Matta is not using his bench this season. He is simply using it differently.
"We've got a lot of guys that can play a lot of different positions," he said. "That's important to get those guys a little blow in the first half then early on in the second half."
Matta drew criticism last season for occasionally going only six deep in tight games, relying heavily upon his wings to carry the load. In all, only six players saw action in all the games during which they were healthy and available to play: Dallas Lauderdale, Kyle Madsen, Buford, Turner, Lighty and Diebler.
Madsen served in relief of Lauderdale while the other four players seldom came out of the game for the likes of reserves Jeremie Simmons, P.J. Hill and Nikola Kecman. Throughout the season, Matta said he shortened practice time with the focus of going hard but short in an effort to save the legs of his key players.
It remains largely the same in practice this season.
"I'd say we're basically the same: short and very intense," Matta said. "Competitive. You've got to get stops or you've got to score to get off the court. We don't ever want to change that."
This year, the addition of three freshmen has allowed Matta to slightly expand his rotation. Jared Sullinger starts alongside Lauderdale in the paint and point guard Aaron Craft usually checks in for Lauderdale at the first media timeout. The two big guys then rotate for each other almost exclusively throughout the rest of the game.
Freshman forward Deshaun Thomas also provides relief off the bench as the seventh man, but his average of 16.2 minutes per contest is nearly half that of the team's perimeter players. The other two scholarship players eligible to play – Jordan Sibert and Lenzelle Smith – have enjoyed bit roles.
Sibert had seen action in 15 games, averaging 10.3 minutes, while Smith have averaged 5.7 minutes in 10 appearances after coming back from offseason wrist surgery. Matta has said on multiple occasions that Sibert and Smith have the disadvantage of being stuck behind proven players.
Once Craft enters the game, Matta substitutes from among his group of wings that includes Buford, Diebler and Lighty.
"We're all interchangeable," Lighty said. "We know each other's spots and positions. I brought the ball up in the last couple of games and started the play. Jon went to the (power forward spot), Will took over at (shooting guard). That's good for you when you have so many options to choose from."
Aside from Craft for Lauderdale, which has almost been a given at the first media timeout this season, Matta said he does not go into a game with a substitution pattern set in his mind. Rather, the coach said he tries to get a feel for the action before deciding who will replace whom on the court.
"We don't at this particular juncture go into a game and script it out," he said. "I've found over time it doesn't work that way."
The result has been fewer minutes for the team's key players. Diebler said he feels that will pay off down the stretch for the Buckeyes.
"This year, having guys come in and give us a break throughout the game is probably going to help us later on in the season," he said. "It's something we've prepared for and have been preparing for the last couple years. It is nice to get a little breather in the games knowing we have guys who can still produce."
It is no accident that Diebler sees the most playing time, however.
"I think he's somebody that on the floor you've always got to know where he is if you're the opposing team," Matta said of the senior. "His defense, he really understands what we're trying to do, game plan wise what we're attempting to take away. That's a great comfort as a coach to have him out there."