At halftime of ESPN's coverage of the Ohio State - Indiana basketball game, sideline reporter Erin Andrews asked Ohio State head coach Thad Matta if he had any adjustments planned for the second half. A joking, smiling Matta quipped, "yes but I can't tell you what they are."
As it turns out, he did have some words of wisdom for his Buckeyes in the locker room, although it was hardly any magical secret. It took most of the second half to kick in, but his advice must have been "attack."
It wasn't always pretty. It wasn't at all easy. But Ohio State used a size and athleticism advantage against the Hoosiers to pull away in crunch time for a 74-67 victory over the Hoosiers in Columbus on Tuesday evening.
Ohio State shot 35 free throws, an advantage often seen at Assembly Hall in Bloomington, compared to just 11 attempts for the Hoosiers. However, the foul disparity was not quite as pronounced as the free throws might indicate - the Buckeyes were whistled for 16 fouls to 25 for Indiana.
Ohio State's freshman center, 7-1 Greg Oden, found himself in foul trouble in his own right. The heavily-hyped Oden sat much of the second half with constant foul difficulties. However, when Oden was in the lineup, he did plenty of damage with a career-high 21 points and grabbed five rebounds to go along with four blocked shots.
Most impressively, Oden shot 9-of-10 from the charity stripe with his left hand. Ohio State held a 13-point advantage at the free throw line, making up for a 24-point disparity behind the arc (12 made three-pointers to just four for Ohio State).
It's quite simple for the Buckeyes: they finally attacked the rim - something they haven't been doing enough of in recent games. Ohio State attempted just 15 shots from three-point range, which accounted for one third of their attempts.
The game did expose some continuing problematic areas for the Buckeyes. Indiana head coach Kelvin Sampson exploited Oden's difficulties in heding on the screens out top with forward Lance Stemler. Stemler connected on 3-of-5 from three-point range.
While Indiana played a tough, active defense on the perimeter, taking away most open looks for Ohio State from three-point territory, the Buckeyes continued to attack the rim, feed the post, and most importantly against the Hoosier zone - they found the middle and made the extra pass to the opposite baseline.
As Ohio State pulled away in the second half, the Buckeyes can thank two important factors: the play of Othello Hunter when Oden was on the bench and the fatigue of Indiana foward D.J. White, who become heavily winded late in the game, playing 36 minutes and drawing the task of working against Oden for most of those minutes.
White did the best job that could have been expected of him. In the first half, White backed down Oden several times without fear of being blocked. When Ohio State attempted to guard White with forward Ivan Harris, the experiment failed miserably, contributing to Harris playing just 13 minutes.
For the entire game, White finished with 11 points and grabbed eight rebounds, although he was just 3-of-14 from the field with Oden altering or blocking several shots. He scored five of those 11 points from the line where he was 5-of-5.
* Ohio State, especially Oden, continues to struggle hedging Oden against a high screen. Two of Oden's four fouls Tuesday were hedging 30-feet from the basket. All three of Stemler's three-pointers were on Oden, who was slow to return after the switch. Against a team like Indiana, who is likely to play four perimeter-oriented players against Ohio State, the Buckeyes can be caught on a match-up problem with Oden being drawn too far from the basket and consequently, might give up some open outside shots. Trying to "protect" Oden the last three minutes when he returned with four fouls, Ohio State did not assign Oden to come out top and hedge. Was that a sign of things to come or merely an attempt to avoid a fifth foul so far from the rim? It's clear Matta is trying to teach Oden to hedge and recover, but this has been a work in progress.
* Indiana created many problems for Ohio State with the shot fake. At least four or five times the Hoosiers hit a step-aside three-pointer after drawing an Ohio State defender off their feet. Another half-dozen times (at least), the Buckeyes fell for a ball fake on the perimeter, causing them to play defense with their hands instead of shuffling their feet. These cheap fouls are mostly "freshmen" mistakes, although recently Jamar Butler and senior Ron Lewis have been caught doing the same things.
* A pattern that is plaguing Ohio State is that the Buckeyes appear to play terrific defense when they extend the half-court pressure. Ohio State often scores off their defense as their players rise to the occasion, and execute on the break. However, sometimes this also gives the impression that they are not playing consistent defense for 40 minutes because Ohio State makes the big play, but falls asleep. The biggest problem defensively for the Buckeyes this season beyond the hedge has been maintaining focus for the entire game on the defensive end. Awareness on the baseline has also been a big issue.
* The Hoosiers didn't stick with it, but as other teams have done, Indiana had some success drawing Oden away even 15-20 feet from the basket, and running a backdoor cut off a vertical screen. Teams like Wisconsin, Illinois and Northwestern (coincidently Ohio State's next three Big Ten opponents) will look to exploit this tendency.
* Harris may have found his kryptonite Tuesday evening - a powerful forward that will take him down to the block. Ohio State cannot get just 13 minutes out of Harris in a closely-contested, physical Big Ten basketball game.
* If there's a silver-lining into Oden finding himself in foul trouble, it may have shown through this evening by Hunter. The 6-9 JUCO transfer came up with a big performance Tuesday evening: 14 points, six rebounds and three blocks in 23 minutes. More importantly, Hunter did a yeoman's job against White when Oden was on the bench with four fouls. Hunter held his ground well against White on the block and altered several shots. Most impressively of all, Hunter did a fantastic job spotting openings on the weakside of the basket and running to space. His teammates did an even better job finding him for easy baskets. As Hunter continues to improve, he could make Ohio State a much better basketball team by March.
* Speaking of finding open teammates, Mike Conley may have played the best game of his young and successful Ohio State career to date. Conley had 9 points, 10 assists, three rebounds and three steals without turning the ball over a single time. Conley also drew two offensive fouls and played terrific defense. It goes without saying Ohio State is at it's best when Conley is on the floor and attacking people off the dribble. His court visition and quickness made it impossible for Indiana to defend him.
* For the first time in a couple of weeks, the pleas coming from the Ohio State fanbase for more dribble-penetration were finally answered. In the second half especially, Lewis, Butler, Conley, David Lighty and Daequan Cook all aggressively attacked the rim. Although Indiana can make a case for some questionable calls against them and in favor of Ohio State, the free throw disparity was mostly caused because Ohio State put the ball on the floor and drew fouls - Indiana was often setting for jump shots.
* Ohio State finished a game. That's something they did not do last season and didn't do against North Carolina earlier this year. It's likely that Ohio State just had more firepower at the end and the combination of that and fatigue won this game for them, but for a relatively inexperienced team that has five key players who played in their first Big Ten game - it was an encouraging sign for the future.
* For the second consecutive game, Ohio State had just eight turnovers. This was more impressive considering Indiana played a very aggressive zone. On the flip side, the Buckeyes were extending their pressure at critical times. Although Ohio State forced just 10 turnovers, many of them were during key runs.
It was an important victory for Ohio State Tuesday. Their reward? On Saturday they travel to Illinois and with just two days in between, they head next Tuesday to Madison for a date with the Wisconsin Badgers.
Ohio State's crowd showed up in full force Tuesday night, giving the Buckeyes a homecourt advantage they weren't given against Florida or North Carolina. Now that will be short-lived as Ohio State will get two of their toughest tests during Big Ten play all in the next week.
Against Illinois, Ohio State will have to play tough defensively. Illinois does not have a lot of scorers on the offensive end, but the Illini motion offense has a good mix of downscreens, vertical screens, horizontal screens and ball screens. Ohio State cannot allow Jamar Smith, Richard McBride and Trent Meacham to have open three-pointers. The Buckeyes especially need an answer inside for Shaun Pruitt, Brian Randle and Warren Carter - one of the better front lines in the Big Ten this season.
Will Matta have an answer? If he does, he won't tell.