As Ohio State saw a 13-point first-half lead morph into an 11-point defeat Jan. 25 against Michigan State, one of the chief reasons had to do with the visiting Spartans' ability to pick apart the Buckeye 3-2 match-up zone defense.
In the first half, it was MSU guard Durrell Summers hitting from behind the three-point arc to keep his team in the game. In the second half, it was the diminutive Kalin Lucas who was able to penetrate the zone, find open looks and score 20 second-half points to help his team pull away for the victory.
After the game, OSU head coach Thad Matta said that he had thought about switching to man defense but added that he simply felt the team's overall effort on defense left something to be desired.
"It's so hard to change up," he said. "If we were playing man, zone, whatever we were doing you still have to finish the play coming up with the basketball."
The most troubling aspect of the situation is that this was not an isolated incident for the OSU zone. This year's installment of Matta's defense has seen teams capitalize on open looks both from deep and from soft spots within the alignment of OSU defenders.
A loss to Illinois where the Fighting Illini found plenty of holes in the zone immediately comes to mind. So, too, do wins against Iowa and Butler that came in spite of hot-shooting performances from both squads as the Buckeyes displayed a frustrating inability to locate shooters.
But in his closed practices, Matta said it is obvious that his team has to play zone to cover up what he feels are serious weaknesses within his team. Although he said there are "thousands" of reasons why the Buckeyes do not play man defense in games, he gave one specific example.
"You know how many ball screens B.J. Mullens has had to hedge on 30 feet from the basket this year?" he said before indicating that the answer was zero. "You know how many he would hedge (Wednesday) night if we were playing that? He can't do that."
With a bench that has just nine available scholarship players, seven of whom are counted on nightly, the Buckeyes can not afford to have their big men get in early foul trouble. Last season, the zone helped protect Kosta Koufos from landing in foul trouble. Two seasons ago, Matta began using it with Greg Oden in mind.
This season, Matta sticks to his zone to help protect the likes of Dallas Lauderdale and Mullens.
"When you have young big guys you've really got to be careful if you don't have a ton of depth saying, ‘It's OK if he gets one,' " Matta said. "We need everyone as much as we can out there."
The Buckeyes do work on man defense about half of the time in practice, Matta said, because they have to prepare for what other teams are going to do to them. Although he is not confident enough in his team's ability to play straight man defense, Matta stressed that the basic principles are the same in each alignment.
And against the Spartans, the Buckeyes were not taking care of their responsibilities. When Lucas kept knifing into the zone, for example, one man was supposed to be guarding him.
"If you look at it, we were manned up, which kind of goes back to ‘we weren't real good at it as he got by us,' " he said. "We're weak in some areas in that regard. We need support. We need to know where guys are in a lot of different areas. With the lineup we're playing right now, it could really pose some problems for us in match-ups."
It all adds up to a picture that says that even if Matta wanted to play zone, he does not have the players to do so.
"I think zone helps," junior guard P.J. Hill said. "When you do this you want to cover certain player weaknesses and team weaknesses. Our biggest strength might not be being able to go man to man. Everybody might not be able to hold their own."