Friday, the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament will take the court for a contest against Texas-San Antonio (4:45 p.m., TNT). In preparation, head coach Thad Matta put his players through an old practice drill Thursday afternoon in Cleveland.
"It's a straight close-out drill, working on our close-outs and guarding the ball," senior guard Jon Diebler said. "That's all it is. It's nothing too fancy. It's something we used to do everyday to start practice. He brought it back today."
The drill emphasizes toughness, junior guard William Buford said.
"You start off in the paint and then a player has it on the wing and you close out with high hands and don't let him drive past you," he said.
The message was clear: in order for the Buckeyes to live up to their billing and bring home the school's first national title since 1960, they must do it with their defense.
The Buckeyes entered the tournament 11th in scoring defense, allowing opponents to average 59.8 points per game, but teams had hit on 42.5 percent of their shots. That was good for 133rd-best.
But most troubling for the Buckeyes has been the way they have allowed teams to crawl back into games. During a four-game stretch starting Jan. 4 at Iowa, OSU held double-digit second-half leads only to see their opponents come roaring back. In those games, OSU won by a combined 15 points.
Such play came back to bit the Buckeyes in a road loss, their first of the season. A 15-point lead with about 13 minutes remaining became a four-point Wisconsin win. More recently, OSU held an 18-point lead against Michigan in the semifinal round of the Big Ten tournament before the Wolverines scored 13 straight and would pull within four before the Buckeyes emerged with a 68-61 victory.
So it is that OSU is trying to get back to basics when it comes to results on the defensive end.
"I feel a lot of times we go up with a 10-point lead and just get comfortable with that lead and that team will come back," Buford said. "You just can't do that in this tournament. We've got to value every possession and play together as a whole."
Freshman forward Deshaun Thomas said that the coaches have been preaching a defensive mantra in a somewhat understated way for the entire season.
"(Matta) talks about it," Thomas said. "He always says: I guarantee you, if you play defensive rebounding, you win the ball game. It's not like he's a coach yelling, ‘Rebound! Rebound!' He just tells us. We take that and know he would never lie to us."
When the Buckeyes saw their 2009-10 season come to an end against Tennessee in the Sweet 16, the Volunteers held a 41-29 advantage on the glass that included a 21-16 edge on the defensive end.
"Coach is really just hammering home the defensive aspect," Diebler said. "If you go back to the game that we lost (to Tennessee) last year, we got outrebounded a lot and didn't play defense like we should've. I think that's been the staple for our team all year."
When the Buckeyes excel defensively, they become an even more difficult team to beat. Four players average at least 11 points per game, and that kind of scoring output has OSU ranked 17th nationally in scoring offense (77.1) and second in scoring margin (plus-17.3).
In other words, there is no worry within the locker room about OSU's ability to put points on the scoreboard.
"We're going to score," Diebler said. "We've got enough talent on the offensive end. We're going to score points. Obviously we're not going to make (almost) every shot like we did against Wisconsin. We're going to miss some like we did against Northwestern (in the Big Ten tournament).
"If we play defense like we're capable of, we feel we're very tough to beat."
That message has gotten across to even the freshmen on the team.
"It's been emphasized all year for us," freshman reserve Aaron Craft said. "As many people as we have on offense that have an opportunity to put the ball in the basket, coach has definitely the whole time preached on our defense. That's when we're at our best, when we guard and defend and get easy baskets off our defense instead of trying to just outscore people."