The surest way to win in basketball is to score more points than your opponent. But most coaches don’t take an offensive viewpoint when laying out the blueprints for their team. Ohio State’s Thad Matta is one of the many defensive-minded head coaches around the country, and he may be at the top of the list.
He’s won with defense at Butler, Xavier and Ohio State – a lot. Matta’s never won fewer than 20 games in a season. Defense, and most especially team defense, is at the forefront of each practice and game plan. It’s been that way for 14 seasons for Matta and his group of trusted assistants.
“Coach Matta talks about it a lot, about every game, that we’re the best defense in the country,” junior guard Shannon Scott said. “We really want to have that in our heads, that nobody should be able to score on us. We want to make sure we’re the aggressor while we’re on offense and defense.”
Through 10 games, the Buckeyes own the third-best scoring defense in the country (54.6 points per game), the fifth-best field-goal percentage defense (36.6 percent), the No. 2-ranked three-point defense (23.2 percent) and they rank 11th in turnover margin (5-1). Ohio State’s 75 steals put them in the top 20 percent nationally, as do its 49 blocked shots.
In their most recent win, the Buckeyes held North Dakota State’s Marshall Bjorklund, the NCAA’s active career leader in field-goal percentage (66.6 percent), to 50 percent shooting from the field. A good-shooting Bison team that upset Notre Dame in its pervious game only connected on 42 percent of their shots.
“Although it is a team, it is team defense,” junior forward Trey McDonald said. “We look at it as a personal challenge. Someone shooting that high of a field goal percentage and averaging that many points , we definitely look to Amir to try and shut them down and play our defensive game as we have been doing.”
Williams did exactly that and secured eight defensive rebounds. But Ohio State’s defensive prowess begins in the backcourt with Aaron Craft and Scott, arguably the top defensive duo in the country.
While teams are playing more zone defenses than ever due to the new rule changes, the Buckeyes have relied on stingy man-to-man sets led by Craft and Scott. They already have a combined 48 steals – 24 a piece – and Ohio State has tallied 172 points off turnovers, an average of 17.2 per game or nearly one-fourth of the Buckeyes’ point per-game output.
Scott’s dependability has lessened any pressure Craft might have felt. Praised routinely by the likes of Mike Krzyzewski, Billy Donovan and Bill Self, a nation of college basketball fans is well versed on Craft’s, well, craft. Scott was the mystery, though any shroud of secrecy has since been lifted.
Scott, the son of North Carolina and NBA star Charlie, possesses all the characteristics great defenders acquire – instincts, the ability to clog passing lanes, physicality, etc. The constant pressure Craft and Scott apply prevents opponents from getting settled into their preferred half-court offenses.
“I think we’ve got some guys that are underrated defenders,” Matta said. “I love what guys are bringing to the table. Are we perfect? No, but we have guys dialed in and connected and tuned into scouting.”
For fans of the Football Buckeyes, Matta’s comments might cause more angst and heartbreak. So too could the words of Scott. In the week leading up to the Big Ten Championship Game, Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook said he was licking his chops after watching Ohio State’s defense gets shredded against Michigan. Then Cook, a first-year starter, performed like a seasoned vet in guiding the Spartans to an upset victory.
The football defense is far from feared. The opposite occurs when Matta, Craft and Scott traipse into an arena.
“From the viewpoint of other teams thinking of us as a problem on defense, we really want that to happen,” Scott said. “We went them to be scared to play against us.”
The most noteworthy act came in November, when the Buckeyes limited then-No. 17 Marquette to 35 points – for the game. The Golden Eagles shot 19 percent from the field and made one lonely three-pointer. Ohio State did that in a venue where Marquette had won 27 consecutive games, dating back almost two years.
“I think at times some teams are kind of hesitant when they play against us,” Scott said. “They don’t take the shots they’re supposed to take. They make another move and expect us to be there.
“If we can do that against other teams, that’s really great for us.”