According to Ken Pommeroy, Ohio State has ranked no lower than 16th in adjusted defensive efficiency over the past four seasons, checking in at No. 3 last season. Through 22 games this year, Ohio State is 58th in that category.
Matta opened the season in a 2-3 zone, but went to man-to-man defense just before halftime of the Buckeyes second conference game this season. It made a huge difference in that game, a 77-61 win over Illinois, but the Ohio State defense has been inconsistent since.
The Buckeyes have held conference opponents to 65.7 points per game through nine Big Ten games and Matta said the team’s defense is improving.
“For how our defense is growing — a great defense is not where the ball is they’re kind of where the ball is going to be,” he said. “I think we’re getting better in that regard of reading situations. I think our communication is getting a lot better defensively. Since we’ve played man now, we’ve basically seen everything that somebody can throw at us in terms of positioning and actions, ball screen sets those types of things.
“I don’t think defense is ever second nature because of the constant movement and that sort of thing but I think our guys have a better understanding of what we’re trying to do rotation-wise, ball pressure-wise those types of things.”
That defensive improvement came to a head in back-to-back wins over then-No. 23 Indiana and then-No.16 Maryland. While the Hoosiers scored 70 points against Ohio State, Indiana coach Tom Crean credited the Buckeyes excellent help defense for limiting the dribble-penetration that makes his team go.
Four days later, Ohio State held Maryland to just 56 points and shut down leading scorer Melo Trimble, holding the freshman to just three points and 0-of-8 shooting. The Terrapins entered the game averaging 72.6 points per game with Trimble contributing over 16 a contest.
“We did a lot of switching and guys did a good job keeping him in front of them,” Matta said of the effort on Trimble.
“I thought we did a pretty decent job of transition defense. They’re a team that can hurt you in a lot of different ways. I don’t know, I thought we did a nice job of just challenging shots.”
The effort on Trimble was led by Shannon Scott, a player well-known for his defensive efforts, but when the senior was out of the game, the task fell to freshman D’Angelo Russell. Matta showed confidence in his young guard, allowing him to switch on to Trimble when both Russell and Scott were in the game at times.
While Russell has been a revelation offensively for the Buckeyes, a big reason they are the 16th-best scoring team in the country, his defense is improving. Scott said he has talked to Russell some about defense, but a lot of the improvement has been internal.
“I told him some little things about using his length, I mean he’s a 6-5 guard with great arm length, so I feel like he can have a step on people and still be able to recover,” Scott said. “So I told him a couple of things on that, but a lot of it he’s just picking up on his own, just practicing more every day with it.”
Matta has always been a defense-first coach. If a player wasn’t able to hold their own on that end of the floor, Matta had no problem with a severe reduction in minutes. This season, the Buckeyes have not played the type of lock-down defense they have in recent years, but considering they spent the offseason working on zone, the steady improvement since switching to man has been encouraging for Ohio State.
“It definitely was a big adjustment to make from working on zone all summer then midseason changing to man,” freshman Jae’Sean Tate said. “Every week, every game we are getting better and we are seeing results.”