Shooting To The Top

Conference play is usually the part of the season where teams see production decrease because opponents are so well-versed in what each team is capable of doing. This year, Ohio State has managed to shoot better than 50 percent in conference play, and the Buckeyes and some of their opponents have a few theories as to why that is the case.

Entering the 2008-09 season, Ohio State head coach Thad Matta knew he had a challenge in front of him.

Gone were his three top scorers from the season before and nearly 63 percent of his total scoring. Stepping into the void were a number of underclassmen who had shown the potential to score in bunches, but none had established themselves as dominant, go-to scorers.

Putting a positive spin on the situation, Matta likened the situation to his lone year as the head coach at his alma mater during the 2000-01 season.

"Hopefully somebody would emerge as a consistent scorer, but I think as I look at this team – I told them the other day that the first team I coached at Butler, we never had the same leading scorer two games in a row for 32 games or whatever it was," he said prior to the start of the season.

Now more than halfway through the Big Ten portion of the schedule, the Buckeyes have done more than find a consistent leading scorer in Evan Turner: They have shot pretty darn well as an entire team in conference play.

Although OSU is shooting 47.9 percent from the field for the season, in 11 Big Ten games the Buckeyes have connected on 266 of 531 shots. That's good for 50.1 percent, a figure that put them atop the conference standings by an even 5.0 percent as of Feb. 12.

Why are the Buckeyes shooting so well against teams that know them better than the rest of the country? Matta credited it to improved shot selection.

"I really think early on we would hit a panic button in some games or some stretches in games and shoot some questionable shots – not ridiculously bad, but (now we're) trying to get better shots," he said. "I think that all of our guys have worked extremely hard with their shooting. I think that we spend a ton of time just shooting the basketball every day."

Michigan head coach John Beilein, who has suffered two losses at the hands of the Buckeyes this season, said he feels the fact that OSU is able to get so many shots so close to the basket has enabled it to be so successful from the field.

That might seem like a common-sense answer, but it is no fluke that the Buckeyes are able to get such high-percentage shots. Beginning with a lopsided loss to West Virginia on Dec. 27, OSU would shoot 41.8 percent or worse from the field in three of its next four contests and lose those three games.

Throughout the slump, players like Jon Diebler said the offense was stagnating because the Buckeyes were not reversing the ball around the perimeter quickly enough. In addition, the team was still adjusting to having lost its most experienced player in David Lighty for an undetermined period of time.

But as the season has continued, younger players such as B.J. Mullens and William Buford have grown into more polished players capable of playing at an elite level. Mullens has scored in double figures in nine of the last 10 games, while Buford is the team's second-leading scorer at 11.8 points per game and has been named Big Ten player of the week.

"I'm really surprised that Buford … has been able to shoot such a high percentage as a freshman," Beilein said. "It's very rare. You look at the seniors and juniors in our league and look at their three-point percentages since they were freshman and you see this gradual climb. He's already at the top here. He's incredible."

As of Feb. 12, Buford was eighth in the conference in three-point shooting during Big Ten play, connecting at a 40.4 percent (19 for 47) clip.

He is one part of an overall OSU attack that is starting to look like it is hitting on all cylinders with each passing conference game. As Purdue's Matt Painter learned when his team dropped an overtime decision to the Buckeyes on Feb. 3, they can be deadly when they are on.

"They were more efficient shooting the ball, but those guys are talented," he said after OSU shot 60.4 percent against the Boilermakers. "These guys are good players. I think that was a huge confidence game for those guys. They really got on track. Tonight they got in a groove and we flat just couldn't stop them."

Buford and Mullens' productions have certainly helped, but Turner has continued to grow as well in his second year in the program. The team's leading scorer at 17.0 points per game, Turner is the top scorer in conference play at 18.0 points per Big Ten game.

In a 78-67 home loss to Michigan State, Turner led the way with 19 points for the Buckeyes. Afterward, MSU head coach Tom Izzo credited Turner's versatility while playing out of position at power forward for his performance this season.

"We don't have good match-ups for Turner," he said. "He's a guard almost. He can handle the ball and spin dribbles, and yet they're smaller (when he's in the lineup). He is one of their better rebounders."

It all adds up to a machine that is proving to be difficult to stop when it is flowing.

"I think offensively we're hard to match up with especially with Evan at the 4," Diebler said. "We're a very versatile team offensively and defensively but on offense we've got a lot of weapons. We've got a lot of guys who can shoot and guys that can penetrate and our bigs are doing a nice job inside right now. I think we're at our best when we have that balanced scoring."

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