OSU Trying To Make Run Without Threes

The Ohio State basketball team has won 20 of its 23 games, but the Buckeyes are doing it a little different than they've done it in the past under head coach Thad Matta. This year, Ohio State isn't relying on three-pointers the way it has in the past. And Matta is just fine with that.

If personnel is the lone factor when dictating the identity of a basketball team, it likely didn't take Ohio State head coach Thad Matta long to realize that this year's team would rely far less on shooting three-pointers.

Of course, there was the obvious clue for Matta since the Buckeyes said goodbye after last season to Jon Diebler, the most prolific three-point shooter in the history of the Big Ten.

But then there's the continued emergence of sophomore big man Jared Sullinger, whose dominance in the paint commands Ohio State's offense to always run the ball through him, making lower-percentage shots from the outside less of a priority.

Despite Diebler's proficiency from beyond the arc – he made 227 3-pointers a year ago – there were times when the he got cold from long range. Relying on lower percentage shots, though worth more in points, can be liability at times. With Sullinger, who either scores or draws a foul most of the time he attacks the basket, it's harder for the way he provides Ohio State points to go cold.

"I think it is tough to focus on the three-point shot when we have a presence like Jared in the post," sophomore point guard Aaron Craft said. "It is tough not to want to throw it into him and playing inside-out with him. That's the best offense we have."

Ohio State's philosophy has been a far cry to what was viewed as normal for the Buckeyes in years past under Matta. This year's team is deriving only 18.9 percent of its scoring output from beyond the arc, which through Feb. 5 ranked 332nd out of 344 college basketball teams nationally in percentage of points.

With the aid of Diebler a year ago, the Buckeyes got roughly 30 percent of their scoring from long range – and ranked among the top 100 in the nation – statistically showing Ohio State's offensive identity is drastically different than it was a year ago.

"Offense last year, we could have just stood there and knocked down threes," said Sullinger, who leads this year's team in scoring with 17.4 points per game. "This year, we're a little more athletic. We're slashing a little more.

"Having a guy like Jon Diebler was a real help for my freshman season, but in this offense we kind of know what we have to do to score with the basketball. When we play inside-out or drive the basketball, we're very hard to guard."

Matta acknowledged that three-pointers can often be great equalizers, momentum-builders or ways to put up a barrage of points in a short amount of time. But the Buckeyes haven't found a need to rely on that kind of scoring this year. In the third-ranked Buckeyes' win at No. 19 Wisconsin on Feb. 4, the team made only 1 of 7 shots from beyond the arc. Granted, the three Ohio State did convert came from senior William Buford late in the contest and gave the Buckeyes a four-point lead that eventually led to the 58-52 win.

However, the Badgers – a team known for relying on the three-point shot – made only 5 of 27 from beyond the arc, causing the team to come up empty on a multitude of possessions which could have been one of the main factors in the team's loss.

Wisconsin, who also lost to Iowa at home on Dec. 1 because of a cold night (3-for-28 from long range), illustrated perfectly what results look like for a team who relies on the three on a cold shooting night.

But even as Wisconsin continued to fire attempts from long range toward the hoop – moments when Matta acknowledged being "scared as hell" – Ohio State's offensive philosophy remained constant. And it came in the form of getting Sullinger the ball in the paint.

"We did a decent job of taking what was given to us," Matta said. "For instance, a lot of times our threes come in transition and Wisconsin is a really, really good transition defensive team. For points per possession against a great defense, I thought we were pretty effective with what we were trying to get done."

But the question begs to be asked: Will there be a time when an opposing athletic big man neutralizes Sullinger, forcing Ohio State to rely on the three to keep itself in the game?

And if that were to happen, it still remains unclear if the Buckeyes have the proven consistent shooting weapons to overcome such a situation if they're faced with it come NCAA Tournament time.

Though Ohio State lost to Kentucky in the Sweet 16 after a clutch shot late, Diebler tied the game with a crucial three with less than a minute remaining the previous possession. Who would make that shot this year? Perhaps nobody, as the Buckeyes could opt to throw it into Sullinger and extend the game.

Ohio State's top weapon from long range is sophomore shooting guard Lenzelle Smith Jr., who had converted 44.7 percent of his threes through Feb. 5. However, Smith had attempted only 38 shots from beyond the arc and remains a question mark offensively despite showing signs of proficiency in that area during Ohio State wins at home against Indiana and Michigan.

The Buckeyes had attempted only 336 three-pointers this season through 23 games, which equals roughly 14 attempts per contest. Only 47 other college basketball teams out of 344 have attempted a lower average of treys.

"My thing is – take good ones," Matta said. "If we have good shots, let's take them. We haven't really talked about shooting threes (because) at this stage of the season our guys know when they should shoot it and who should shoot it and hopefully the difference between a good one and a bad one.

"I haven't really thought about only shooting seven threes (against Wisconsin) because when I first started coaching here everyone was saying, ‘You guys take too many threes.' I'm trying to even it up."

Sophomore Jordan Sibert was being molded into a sixth man who would come off the bench and knock down threes, thus changing the pace of the game and causing defenses to adjust. However, Sibert is shooting only 26.5 percent from long range and has seen his minutes decrease in recent games.

Buford has shot the most number of threes, making 36 of 97 attempts (37.1 percent) from beyond the arc, while sophomore Deshaun Thomas has made 23 of 70 (32.9), but there hasn't been a clear-cut, go-to shooter who can be relied on to make shots of that sort.

Ohio State hasn't avoided shooting three-point jumpers because it isn't converting. The Buckeyes have knocked down 33.0 percent of their attempts from beyond the arc as a team, but that ranks only 225th nationally.

Even Sullinger has made 8 of his 19 attempts (42.1 percent), most effectively when spotting up after arriving late in transition.

But Matta prefers higher-percentage looks inside, especially because Sullinger is one of the best finishers in college basketball. Making that strategy even more important is the big man's proficiency at the free-throw line – he is 93 for 122 (76.2 percent) at the charity stripe.

No one has been able to force Ohio State's hand offensively, as Sullinger has typically outdueled opposing teams' big men. And the Buckeyes' strategy will remain the same as long as Sullinger continues to dominate the paint.

"It is not like it was last year when Jon Diebler was knocking down every shot," Thomas said. "We have a guy like Sully and we can play inside-out, and we have multiple guys who can drive the ball and get three-point plays – a layup and one. That could be our three-point play. We are just trying to win ballgames."

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