Buckeyes Take Top-Ranked 'D' On The Road

When the Buckeyes face an Iowa team on Saturday afternoon that has shown a knack for protecting its home floor, they will do so armed with the top defense in the Big Ten and one of the top defenses in the country. Find out why the players feel it has been so successful and get ready for Saturday's game with the Hawkeyes.

As the Ohio State men's basketball team prepared for the 2007-08 season, head coach Thad Matta knew his team could be a good zone team.

It is unlikely he knew that it would be this good, however. Heading into the stretch run of the regular season, OSU's 3-2 zone defense is statistically the best in the conference and one of the best in the nation.

Through 21 games, teams have shot 37.1 percent against the Buckeyes – best in the Big Ten as of Jan. 31. That figure includes the team's 68-56 victory against Penn State on Jan. 29 that saw the Nittany Lions shoot an even 35.0 percent from the floor in the loss.

Going back one game further, the Buckeyes were allowing opponents to shoot 37.3 percent from the floor in their first 20 games – a figure that ranked sixth out of 328 NCAA teams as of Jan. 27 and one that will be tested by Iowa on Saturday (6 p.m., Big Ten Network).

What has enabled OSU to be so successful on defense? That requires a long answer – and it starts with Jamar Butler, David Lighty and Evan Turner.

"I think they're long and they're athletic and they're fast and they cover a lot of ground," PSU head coach Ed DeChellis said. "The zone has been pretty good for them because I think they can cover ground and they keep you away from the basket. I think that they contain the ball pretty well because Lighty's a long wing and Turner's a long wing and Jamar Butler's a good on-the-ball defender."

Matta has frequently referenced the length his team has at the guard positions, allowing them to cover a lot of ground at the top of the zone. The goal is to have them moving around so much that playing the zone is similar to playing man-to-man defense.

Whether that is the case or not depends on who you ask. Matta preaches to his players that they eschew the sentiment that they can be more relaxed in a zone than in man-to-man defense. But for a player like Butler, who is averaging 35.4 minutes per game as the team's primary scorer and ballhandler, it does give him a chance to catch his breath.

"I think it is less draining," said Butler, who plays at the top of the zone. "I'm not playing man-to-man and chasing (Michigan State guard) Drew Neitzel around for 40 minutes coming off all those screens. I protect my area and that's all I've got to worry about."

It is Butler's responsibility to funnel the ballhandler to the wings, where the 6-6 Turner and the 6-5 Lighty are there waiting. And although Matta said they have slightly altered their zone in recent games, the basic formation remains the same.

Perhaps the most difficult task in the zone belongs to the two big men down low, though. When the ball gets reversed from one side of the floor to the other, it the responsibility of the forward on that end of the court to reverse field and get out to cover the player with the ball regardless of where that player might be.

Matta conceded that asking his players to do so is the most difficult thing in the defense the way it is drawn up.

"But at the same token, if the other guys are doing their job on the floor, it buys him a little more time to get there," he said. "And you've got to see what's going to happen."

Although the team's overall athleticism is certainly a big part of the reason why teams are shooting so poorly against the Buckeyes, it helps that zone defenses primarily give up a certain type of shots: three pointers.

Through Jan. 31, teams had attempted 543 treys against the Buckeyes – tops in the Big Ten and 80 ahead of the Spartans, who have seen teams shoot 463 treys during the same time span. However, OSU opponents have knocked down just 29.3 percent (159 of 543) against the Buckeyes' zone.

The Hawkeyes are eighth in the conference in shooting percentage, connecting at a 42.3 percent clip. Behind the arc, Iowa is shooting 34.5 percent – a figure that is slightly higher (35.0 percent) at home in Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

When working on perimeter defense, Matta said the goals for his players are simple: guard the basketball, have great awareness of what is happening as well as what is coming next and keep opponents in front of them at all times.

Again, DeChellis credited OSU's length on defense when asked why have been so successful defending against the deep ball this season.

"I think because they cover so well," he said. "They're long guys and they're athletic guys and they can cover ground. They have guys in the position to make plays defensively and they're doing a good job."

Both figures posted by the Buckeyes mark improvements on last season's numbers in Matta's typical man-to-man defense. In a season that saw the Buckeyes reach the national championship game, opponents shot 33.6 percent (280 of 833) from beyond the arc and 40.4 percent (903 of 2,237) overall.

"I think it's a tough zone to play against when we're flying around and putting hands in people's faces and challenging every shot," Butler said.

If OSU continues to force teams to shoot from beyond the arc at this rate and plays as many games as last season, it would see teams hoist up 1,008 treys – an increase of 175 from a season ago.

In that case, the Buckeyes would stand to have a chance to make a run late in the season as long as their defense can maintain its current production – a fact DeChellis is well aware of.

"They make you make perimeter shots and they can close out pretty quickly on the perimeter guys," he said. "They keep the ball from penetrating and they keep it on the perimeter and then you're going to have to make some perimeter shots. I think that's been very effective."

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