Matta Getting Bench Involved

Ohio State head coach Thad Matta has heard about the constant questioning about the use - or lack thereof - of his bench over the course of the past few seasons. This year, however, Matta has liked what he's seen out of his reserves enough to get a lot of them into the game for important minutes.

It's not likely Thad Matta was able to remain oblivious to fans' concerns regarding his philosophy on the dispersion of his team's minutes over the course of the last few seasons.

If the Ohio State head coach somehow remained unaware of his sometimes-controversial stance on switching his lineup, reporters made it a point to ask questions about the topic enough to keep him abreast.

Matta, however, has to feel like he's escaped the criticism this season regarding his bench use. He even felt it was more appropriate to point out a reporter who broached the subject with Northwestern head coach Bill Carmody, who has used starters Jon Shurna and Dave Sobolewski in nearly every minute of Big Ten play to this point.

This year, Matta doesn't view himself as the expert on keeping his starters on the floor and his bench players in their warmups. Instead, the coach has taken a game-by-game approach to how to shuffle reserves into the game for crucial minutes.

"A lot of it is just an understanding," Matta said, describing what has changed in his youthful team to alter the flow of what had otherwise been a rather tight rotation. "We have been fortunate to get those guys a lot of minutes throughout the course of the season, but also through practice.

"I see each guy coming in every day doing things better, having a better understanding of how we're trying to do things. Like I have always said, when you get into this part of the season, tryouts are over. I like what I am seeing."

Impressing Matta in practice is the secret for any inexperienced player hoping to get onto the floor during a game. The head coach even admitted to keeping primary players on the floor late in blowouts if reserves hadn't earned their time by doing the right things in practice.

But that hasn't been the case this season. The first players off the bench have varied quite a bit in comparison to what has been seen in years past – specifically during Big Ten play.

"I think honestly it is a game-by-game situation," Matta said of this year's rotation. "Who is playing well and what they're bringing to the table has a lot to do with it."

In the fourth-ranked Buckeyes' most recent victory over No. 20 Michigan at Value City Arena on Jan. 29 – a 66-49 win that gave the team sole possession of first place in the Big Ten standings – Matta subbed four reserves into the game in the first half.

Those players – freshman guards Shannon Scott and Sam Thompson, sophomore J.D. Weatherspoon and junior transfer Evan Ravenel – might not have seen any minutes if the game were played a month ago, especially when considering they all checked in during crucial first-half moments of a close contest.

"I think Coach Matta is starting to trust more players, and you are seeing that in how many different people come into the games," sophomore guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. told BSB. "We have really been working hard in practice, and that has been noticed in the games. All of us have been playing really well together.

"It just makes the entire team closer when you know more than six or seven players are contributing. We are really playing well as a team and everyone has a role."

Through half of the Big Ten schedule, William Buford (32.9 minutes per game) is the only player on the roster who averages over 30 minutes per contest. Last season, all five players in Matta's starting lineup averaged 31 minutes or more. This season, Matta has six reserves who average more than 6½ minutes per game, four of whom have double-digit averages if you include Jordan Sibert's 9.9. A year ago, only two reserves averaged more than six minutes per game during conference play.

"We have a ton of guys who bring different things off the bench," said sophomore point guard Aaron Craft, who was named the Big Ten's Sixth Man of the Year last season. "I think that makes us dangerous because we can give multiple guys some different looks. It is an advantage when we're able to switch our look up on other teams."

Perhaps the evolution of Matta's bench philosophy is deceiving, especially because there have been extenuating circumstances that would cause inflated numbers in minutes for the team's reserves.

Not only did Ohio State lose David Lighty and Jon Diebler – two veterans who rarely came off the floor last season – the Buckeyes have made winning in blowout fashion rather routine this year.

Ohio State's showdown with Michigan was no exception, as the Buckeyes took what was shaping up to be a close battle and turned it into a 15-point victory. Ohio has blown out 13 opponents by more than 20 points in Columbus this season.

Though Matta has never been concerned about players running out of steam in March when they're played consistently for 40 minutes per game during the regular season, the head coach admitted he'd like to maintain a certain level of defensive intensity throughout each game. Moving players on and off the floor earlier in games can often have lasting effects during those individual contests.

"I've always felt like if we had more depth, we could maybe keep our pressure and our intensity at a higher level as we went through the Big Ten season," Matta said. "I think to this point they've done a pretty good job with that."

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