When the season tipped off in the form of the Buckeyes' 91-68 victory against Wisconsin-Green Bay on Nov. 12, so too did a type of defense frequently despised by OSU head coach Thad Matta.
They played a zone.
Long the bane of Matta, who much prefers to play man-to-man defense the Buckeyes began the season by playing a 3-2 zone. Through the first two games, that is all OSU had lined up in on defense.
As it turns out, the decision to feature the zone was even a surprise to the players on the team.
"It was a game-time decision," senior guard Jamar Butler said. "We came in for our pregame speech and Coach Matta said we were going to play a little zone tonight. We just went out and stuck with it and it worked."
The fact that it worked came as somewhat of a surprise, especially considering that the Phoenix are expected to be a solid three-point shooting team this season. For the evening, Wisconsin-Green Bay went 7 of 28 (25.0 percent) from beyond the arc. In the second half, they were just 3 of 14.
Phoenix head coach Tod Kowalczyk said the zone caught them off guard.
"We weren't anticipating seeing the zone tonight," he said. "As well as we shoot the basketball, that is really our strength and I don't think we'll see much zone this year."
Although the limited tape the OSU coaching staff had of Wisconsin-Green Bay showed them scoring against a zone the one time it was run against them, Matta said went with his intuition.
"It was a gut feeling," he said. "We've been working zone and we went back and forth with it. I thought I'd try it to start and I thought it was pretty good for us."
One night later against Columbia, the Buckeyes again utilized the zone. The Lions shot better than the Phoenix did – hitting on 10 of 30 (33.3 percent) treys – but still found themselves on the wrong side of the final score.
Much like Kowalczyk after the first game, Columbia head coach Joe Jones attributed the effectiveness of the zone to the Buckeyes' length on defense.
"We're an excellent shooting team and we didn't shoot the ball too well tonight, especially in the second half," Jones said. "They really kept us out of our rhythm in the second half. They extended out and we got a little passive. I would've preferred to play against the zone."
In the second half, Columbia was 4 of 14 (28.6 percent) from beyond the arc.
Despite the success of the zone early on in the season, Matta said it will not be something his team will exclusively utilize throughout the year. With a team loaded with freshman, the zone can help them get used to the speed of the college game without seeing them get beat one-on-one in man-to-man defense.
"The good thing for us is we've got some time to get our man to man back," he said after the Columbia game. "We've been working it every day. I think the man-to-man stuff is going to be good. I think the zone in the first two games has been pretty effective for us, but we've got to have that because we thought about switching to that tonight. I thought the timing and what we were doing was effective enough."
In addition, the zone has allowed two of the team's most experienced players to play nearly the entirety of the first two games. Sophomore swingman David Lighty and Butler played 33 and 31 minutes, respectively, in the first game. One night later, each played 39 minutes.
Butler attributed the zone to helping him stay fresh on the court despite logging so many minutes.
"It felt good," he said. "Part of it had to be that we played that zone. When we play man to man, I think we'd need more of a break in the game. When we play that zone, I don't want to say that you rest on defense, but maybe you've just got to cover your area."