OSU Hopes Pressure Cooks 'Cats

Ohio State will aim for its third straight Big Ten victory tonight against an energized Northwestern team in Value City Arena. The Wildcats figure to deploy their patented zone defense, but the Buckeyes are already familiar with trying to turn up the heat on opposing offenses.

When Northwestern comes to Value City Arena tonight to face Ohio State, the Wildcats will likely bring their 1-3-1 defense to the court. The alignment is designed to keep opposing offenses uncomfortable and force them to change the pace of their attack.

In other words, it is similar to what the Buckeyes have been attempting to do to opponents all season. Although OSU has mostly relied on a man-to-man defense this season, the Buckeyes have used a few different traps and zones to catch opponents off balance.

In a Jan. 12 road victory against Purdue, OSU opened in a 1-3-1 zone similar to the one Northwestern uses and managed to neutralize post threat JaJuan Johnson in the process. The tradeoff was the fact that guard Robbie Hummel hit on eight three-pointers, forcing the Buckeyes to drop the zone and go back to man.

But as head coach Thad Matta's team mounted its comeback, it was aided by a full-court press deployed in the final moments that caused a number of late Purdue turnovers.

Then four nights later, Wisconsin was unable to force the ball into the paint in what would be a nine-point OSU victory in Columbus. After the game, Badgers head coach Bo Ryan said that had as much to do with the play of junior center Dallas Lauderdale as it did the team's guards.

Now with his team getting ready for the Wildcats (7 p.m., Big Ten Network), Matta said his team's perimeter defense will be an important factor in the game.

"I think we've gotten better," Matta said. "Being able to slow things down with ball pressure is always important. I thought our off-the-ball defense the other night (against Wisconsin) was as good as it's been in a long time."

The concept of length on defense is not a new one for the Buckeyes. In an effort to take advantage of the size of his players on the perimeter, Matta deployed his charges almost exclusively in a 3-2 match-up zone two seasons ago and eschewed his personal preference of playing man-to-man defense.

"The thing that we always try to do as a staff is say this is what we've got, how can we be the best at what we've got?" Matta said. "Right now using the size and the length is something that's been and hopefully will continue to be beneficial to us."

It was not enough to help the Buckeyes reach the NCAA Tournament that season and gave the team fits as it attempted to grab rebounds out of the zone, but overall it was viewed as a positive move. The zone was again used the following year but with less regularity, and this year OSU has primarily played man defense with a few different zone looks sprinkled in.

OSU's starting guards of William Buford, Jon Diebler and Evan Turner measure in at 6-5, 6-6 and 6-7, respectively.

"I think we screw up their timing sometimes because when you're running a play a lot of it is the pass," Diebler said. "You have to have the pass there on time to set up the cut, but when you can disrupt a pass like we are, it causes some frustration on the offensive end for other teams. We're all fairly athletic and pretty quick so I think being able to guard multiple positions like we can and using our length to alter passes and disrupt shots (is beneficial.)"

Down low, the Buckeyes then have undersized power forward David Lighty and a shot-blocker in Lauderdale as a last line of defense. Lauderdale leads the Big Ten with an average of 2.47 blocked shots per game.

Against OSU, the Badgers got off 47 shot attempts – their third-lowest total of the season.

"Jon had a steal and Will had some great help activity," Matta said. "Dave is always flying all over the place. The more we can use that to our advantage, the better it is. We spend a lot of time with the defense and I know it's an area where we've got to continue to improve."

To this point, the Buckeyes sit second in the conference in total defense, having allowed an average of 60.7 points per game. Wisconsin leads the league at 56.7. Those figures come despite the fact that Turner said he is still trying to get back into the flow of the game on the defensive end after missing six games with a back injury.

It seems like Matta would like to pressure teams full-court more often, but his starting guards are all averaging at least 31 minutes per night.

In addition to their ability to pressure other teams, the Buckeyes might have the added advantage of already being familiar with what Northwestern will try to do to them tonight.

"It's a passing-lane defense," Matta said of the Wildcats. "They've got good size now on the wings, which makes a big difference. Size in that defense makes it even more effective."

A lesson the OSU coach knows quite well.

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