Russell Wearing Down?

The Buckeyes are relying heavily on their young star, but are they leaning on him too much.

D’Angelo Russell has been a revelation for Ohio State this season, making it clear that the Buckeyes will go so far as the freshman can carry him.

Russell is leading the team with 19.1 points and 5.8 rebounds per contest and second in assists with 5.5 per game, but are the Buckeyes riding their star guard too much?

The freshman is also tops on the team in minutes per game, logging 33.3 minutes of court time per contest. In the Big Ten he is playing even more, averaging 36.4 minutes in 13 conference games, the fourth most of any player in the league and the only freshman in the top 10 in the conference.

“We’re watching it from the standpoint of trying to get him a blow in the first half and a blow in the second half,” head coach Thad Matta said. “Are we cutting back his practice? Not really, we may hold him back on a couple defensive things or whatever.”

While Russell’s excellence has been consistent this season, in recent games he has struggled with his shooting for the first time this year. In his last four games Russell has shot 40.4 percent from the floor (below his season average of 46.6 percent) and has really struggled from distance, hitting just 30.8 percent of his three-point attempts compared to a 43.1 percent mark for the season.

Surely, part of that has to do with the fact that conference teams use more aggressive scouting measures and are figuring out better ways to defend Russell, though Matta acknowledged there may have been some fatigue after the Michigan State game when the freshman went 4-13 from the field and 2-7 from behind the 3-point line.

“I think the physicality with D’Angelo, they were able to get some physical play on him and got him a little bit,” the coach said. “He was short on some shots; maybe that was three games in six days. I’m not sure.”

As Matta pointed out, Russell’s struggles have come during one of Ohio State’s most aggressive stretches of the schedule. The four games that Russell struggled shooting in came in just a 10-day span (he did average 17.5 points over that stretch).

One of those games was Russell’s triple-double performance (23 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists) against Rutgers, but he did deal with discomfort related to cramping. That has been an ongoing issue, Russell said, and he is doing everything he can to work through them. That includes upping his salt intake and even drinking pickle juice per the instructions of athletic trainer Vince O’Brien.

“We’re aware of it and trying to figure out the cramping thing also,” Matta said. “We can’t get a read on what it is. It’s driving Vince crazy. He’s doing everything we’re asking him to do in terms of preventing it.”

The team is in the midst of a seven-day hiatus that should help Russell and the rest of the Buckeyes get their legs under them.

Don’t expect Russell’s minutes to diminish when the Buckeyes get back at it against Michigan Sunday. He’s too important for Ohio State. He has scored nearly a quarter of the Ohio State’s points this season and according to Russell has contributed 5.9 wins to the Buckeyes this season, nearly double the next highest player (Sam Thompson 3.2). The team scores 12.9 more points per 100 possessions when Russell is on the court then when he sits.

Obviously, Russell can’t spend too much time on the bench if the Buckeyes are to succeed. It also shouldn’t come as a surprise that Matta is riding his best player as the coach hasn’t been shy about playing guys a lot of minutes.

Thompson is averaging nearly as many minutes as Russell in conference play, logging 35.5 per contest while Shannon Scott is putting in 31.8 per Big Ten game.

Still, those players are seniors and presumably more equip to handle the extra workload. Russell’s 33.3 minutes per game are the sixth most by an Ohio State player in the last five years and the most by a freshman in that stretch. The only first-year player to approach Russell’s usage was Jared Sullinger who played 31.7 minutes a game during the 2010-11 season.

Matta has faith that Russell can handle the minutes and that his versatile game will allow him to respond to the various ways that conference teams try to defend him.

“I think that D’Angelo has handled it very well,” Matta said. “He’s a very patient, very poised player.”

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