Countering the Thomas Rules

By Kyle Rowland on December 26, 2012 at 10:00a

The holiday season has brought Ohio State’s basketball schedule to a screeching halt. And even though the Buckeyes are ranked in the top 10 and have only suffered two losses, a week full of practice could be the perfect remedy for what ails them. 

Chuck Daly and his Pistons used the Jordan Rules to stymie Michael Jordan early in his career.The Jordan Rules worked. For a time.

Not many would think Chicago State is the opponent a highly ranked team would need days of preparation for. The Cougars have been an historically putrid program - they're 3-11 this season - but Ohio Stat only has so much time to counter its shortcomings. On Jan. 2 the Big Ten season kicks off when much-improved Nebraska visits Columbus.

In both of Ohio State’s losses, Deshaun Thomas, a preseason All-American, has scored a combined 32 points on 10 of 25 shooting. Entering the Kansas game, Thomas was the Big Ten’s leading scorer with 20.4 points per game, making 46 percent of his field goal attempts.

While the final shooting numbers were an eyesore, it was the inability to get open for makeable shots that gave Ohio State pause.

Duke and Kansas are elite teams, but if non-conference opponents can render Thomas irrelevant, what will Big Ten teams do? Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota and Michigan State also are upper echelon teams, and in the conference, every team knows what its opponent is planning possession by possession.

Much like the Jordan Rules, a defensive strategy employed by Chuck Daly and the Detroit Pistons to stop Michael Jordan and his Bulls, you can imagine opposing teams will implement a similar set of Thomas rules to contain the scorer.

Jordan and the Bulls eventually overcame the strategy, sweeping the Pistons in the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals on the way to six NBA championships. The question is whether Thomas and Ohio State can make similar adjustments.

“They were doubling him at 16 feet from the basket,” Ohio State head coach Thad Matta said following Kansas’ 74-66 win on Saturday. “They were switching everything to deny. When that happens, you’ve got to break the dam by knocking down shots and spreading it so it makes them think, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t do that.’”

But Ohio State barely even had the opportunity to breach the dam, because it couldn’t approach it. In both games, no player could make shots with consistency to offset Thomas’ lack of production. Thomas himself converted little when he actually got a chance to get the ball in the basket.

Attempting shots against Kansas was a rarity. As Ohio State went cold in the second half, Thomas didn’t even shoot the ball over a 10-minute stretch of offensive ineptitude.

“I don’t think they did anything special,” Thomas said. “They just played hard. We had great looks, wide-open looks. I trusted my teammates. They had open looks, and they didn’t knock them down. I told them to keep shooting. I trusted them.”

That trust could be waning now for Thomas. But he’ll have to keep the faith, because double teams will be used with regularity against Ohio State for the duration of the season. The blueprint to beat the Buckeyes has been used twice this season, and the success rate is at 100 percent.

Happiness is Deshaun Thomas mid-photoshoot crossoverLife's just better when Deshaun Thomas is smiling.

Two Buckeyes besides Thomas finished in double figures at Duke, but both had just 11 points apiece. Only one player had more than 10 points against Kansas. In the second half of both games, Ohio State shot less than 30 percent.

Bad days at the office happen, but when shots aren’t near as contested as they are with Thomas, his teammates' ability to knock down open shots must rise. When shots didn’t fall, Ohio State used the pick-and-roll to try to generate some offensive success. But even that didn’t yield desirable results.

Height advantage be damned, Kansas head coach Bill Self was going to stick an athletically blessed defender on Thomas.

“It was probably a good matchup for us to play a guard on him, then we trapped him in the post with Jeff (Withey),” Self said. “We didn’t totally take him out of everything by any stretch.”

That last anecdote is just coachspeak. Thomas became a secondary thought when Ohio State needed him the most. Travis Releford guarded Thomas twice last season and did an adequate job. Once again, he drew the assignment, and once again, his defense led to another Kansas win.

“Travis played great defense on Deshaun Thomas,” Withey said. “We focused on him because we knew he could go off for 30 easily. He’s such a great scorer.”

And when the entire country knows Thomas’ capabilities and the fact that no one else on the team can convert shots with regularity, a perfect storm of ineffectiveness takes over.  

“All of these guys have shown that they can shoot the ball,” Matta said. “Now, is it Jon Diebler-like? Probably not. But somehow, some way we have to figure out how we're going to play our best on game night, but knowing that they may not go down, so let's find an alternative way.”

According to Matta, that alternative is spelled U-G-L-Y. That’s how a defensive-minded, offensively limited team must game plan. Transition offense is when the Buckeyes get a bulk of their points. It’s also when they’re most efficient. Like Thomas’ offensive acumen, that too is not a secret, which is why Kansas took away Ohio State’s ability to attack.

“They basically became a jump-shooting team and that helped us,” Self said.

If Ohio State uses its week wisely, help could also be on the way for the Buckeyes.


Comments Show All Comments

buckeyemondo's picture

i remember reading the book back in sixth or seventh grade, but i barely remember the premise.
jordan rules was overtly physical defense on #23, hence the "bad boy" moniker.  but what was the solution from phil?  the triple post "triangle" offense?  or was it just scottie pippen coming into his own?

baddogmaine's picture

If one player is double or triple teamed then at least one other player will be open. Beating Jordan Rules means positioning the other players where they have a better chance of capitalizing on being open, and instructing decoy Thomas how to find the open guys.
OR, if Thomas is outside and draws double or triple coverage then there will be gaps in the oppenent's inside coverage. Beating Jordan Rules means being ready to exploit the gaps.
What beating Thomas Rules does NOT mean is continuing with quick shots by guys who really can not be counted on to make them. While every Buckeye has had an occasional scoring burst no one other than Thomas has been a reliable jump shooter, so as Self said continuing to be a jump-shooting team is exactly what an opposing coach wants to see.
Thad has done a fine job of coming up with a Plan A that has worked most of the time. What we need to see from him now and the rest of the year is a Plan B that will counter the Thomas Rules. Perhaps slowing to a Whiskey pace is not a bad idea for a team that plays better defense than offense. I'm not advising this but it is an option.

osu_que's picture

We fail to swing the ball and beat our man off the dribble. If Thomas gets double teamed he has to swing the ball and the team can't settle for jumpshots. Similar to what Duke did to us, draw fouls by being aggressive.  If Whithey (sp) is going to block shots fine. He'll get what? 5. But get him in foul trouble by jumping into him. 

Ashtabula's picture

DT is still learning to play the game.  He needs to do a better job of running off screens, setting up his cuts, and he definitely needs to be more physical by setting stronger screens himself to force the player guarding him to help.  Plus, his teammates need to look for him more (I noticed a few times where Scott totally ignored DT in 1 on 1 situations).  Also, I think Matta can definitely put in a few more sets to get him the ball on places on the floor where double teaming is more difficult.
One more thing, I'm tired of hearing Matta talk about how they simply need to knock down some shots.  They missed a ton of open shots because they aren't good shooters or at least they have the wrong people shooting.  Pick and rolls at the top have three options:  ball handler attacks, dishes to roll man, or kicks to shooter.  For OSU, ball handlers are Craft or Scott (neither are tremendous at finishing), roll men are Williams or Ravenal (neither are good at catching on the move or finishing), and the shooters are Thompson and Smith (neither are very good shooters). Wrong offensive set for the personnel.

osu_que's picture

Totally agree. Why not pot DT up at the foul line?

RBuck's picture

But get him in foul trouble by jumping into him.

A good ref would call an offensive foul. But then again, the B1G doesn't have a whole lot of good refs.

Long live the southend.