Bench Pressing a Team to 15-0

By Kyle Rowland on January 6, 2014 at 3:00p
Thanks to strong bench play, Ohio State is off to a 15-0 start.

It’s become a yearly rite of winter – question Thad Matta about his short bench. For a decade now, he’s been quick to peel away what could be an advantage to just six or seven guys once the conference season rolls around. But Saturday’s matinee against Nebraska featured a reserve’s paradise.

The Ohio State bench outscored the Cornhuskers 38-12, and sophomore backup Amedeo Della Valle contributed a game-high 15 points. Not far behind was true freshman Marc Loving, who scored a career-high 13 points.

For stretches of the game, an 84-53 win for the Buckeyes, one could have been confused in finding the difference between the starting five and second five – or four. Ohio State has nine legitimate contributors this season. Carrying a perfect 15-0 record, some of the credit can be directed toward the four-man bench.

“I’m comfortable with my rotation,” Matta said after the latest win. “Every game poses a different scenario in terms of what we might need. It’s great to see when guys come in and can contribute. Everyone looks at the stats, how many points, rebounds, etc. But there are a lot of other intangibles that those guys did today that were good.”

As the non-conference schedule is mocked, Matta is able to discover which starting lineup fits his team best and set a bench rotation. This season that meant making Sam Thompson, the Buckeyes’ most athletic player, the sixth man. So far, so good.

Thompson’s averaging 22 minutes per game with seven points, three rebounds, an assist and a blocked shot. He provides instant energy and can be a spark when Ohio State isn’t clicking. Senior starter Lenzelle Smith Jr. said he feeds off Thompson’s motor each game, adding that it gives him an extra edge.

A fixture as a starter last season, Thompson suffered no harsh feelings when Matta sat him down and explained his theory on why coming off the bench would better serve the Buckeyes. It’s allowed Ohio State to piece together arguably the best defense in the country.

Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott form a backcourt duo that specializes in harassing opposing ball-handlers. The Buckeyes own the nation’s fourth-best scoring defense, limiting teams to 55 points per game on 37 percent shooting.

“No matter how well we are shooting the ball, no matter how well we are playing offensively, we will always be a team that hangs on our defense,” Thompson said. “Anytime our defense is clicking like that and we are able to get easy layups and transitions off of our defense, it really gets us into a flow offensively.”

And even with the demotion, Thompson’s playing only three fewer minutes than he did a year ago – but still supplying the same high-flying, acrobatic dunks.

“He is just so athletic and guys do a great job of finding him,” Matta said. “A lot of things develop when he runs hard. We are able to score a lot just from him running through to the basket.”

In the past, the sixth man has been a vital cog on Matta’s teams in Columbus. From Daequan Cook to B.J. Mullens to Aaron Craft, it’s been a coveted role that’s led to overall team success. The same can be said for the Trey McDonalds and guys further down the line.

With experience comes confidence and the knowledge that they can be relied upon in games with meaning. McDonald’s become a more consistent offensive (see: rebounding) and defensive player with added playing time this year, while Della Valle’s developed into more than a sharpshooting guard. The floppy-haired Italian has incorporated defense into his budding skill set. 

“It excites me,” Matta said of Della Valle’s progress. “I know how hard he works and how badly he wants the team to do well. He wants to contribute and be a part of what we are doing. He’s diligent in his work and he is doing exactly what we need him to do for us.”

Said Della Valle: “Usually we talk on the bench and make sure we bring energy to the team. When you bring energy, you are already doing something big. Then shots come and you play good defense.”

A combination of starters and reserves has fueled an undefeated start to what many thought would be a rebuilding year. As the season stretches into the dogged winter months with Big Ten foes bearing down on Ohio State, Matta will have a new, rare defense mechanism.

“We feel like our energy off the bench can affect the game in a major way,” Loving said.


Comments Show All Comments

3cent's picture

I am happy that the team is doing well. I see this team overachieving and winning the B1G and then getting either a 1 or 2 seed in the tourney. Unfortunately, I also think they will lose in the sweet 16 or elite 8 against some 4 seed (UK, Duke, Kan, Lou, UNC, etc..) who would have underachieved in the regular season but finally clicked when it counted. 

Ethos's picture

haha, it's january man, you don't need to be predicting march already.

"I spent 90 percent of my money on women and drink. The rest I wasted." - George Best

3cent's picture

Just seems like the same story every year unfortunately.

RedStorm45's picture

Working backwards recently...Wichita State an 8 seed in the elite 8.  Kansas was a 2 (or a 1?) in the Final Four.  UK was a 4 in the sweet 16.  Tennessee was a 7 in the sweet 16.  Siena was a 9 seed in the first round.  NIT champs.  UF was the #1 seed and national champ in the final game.  Georgetown was a 7 in the second round.
I'm not sure what the "same story every year" is, but there ya go.  With the exception of Kansas and Florida, we lose to a team with a worse seed.

3cent's picture

The 4 seed was more of a starting point, not a definitive number, I know we haven't lost to 4 seeds every year. This year resembles the years that we ended up losing to Tenn and UK who happened to underachieve in the regular season and then beat us in the tourney. 

yrro's picture

With the seeds we have gotten, we'd pretty much have to make the Final Four every year for that to not have happened... that's how tournaments work when you're consistently good enough to get a high seed.

3cent's picture

You are right. And last year or the prior year didn't bother me. It was those two previous years (Turner's last year and Sullinger freshman year) that really ended with downers and for some reason this year reminds of that.

d5k's picture

And you are falling into the trap of creating trends where there are none.  The bias of hindsight.  And if we do lose in the sweet 16 you will fall into confirmation bias.

d5k's picture

Abstracting probability of multiple independent events occurring is a difficult concept.  The fact that almost every (probably every) team in the current format is an underdog to make the final four before the tournament starts should be enough to placate the results oriented fans though I would hope.

chowoon97's picture

Duke: No inside defense.
Kansas: Poor outside shooting and inexperienced.
Louisville: No Chane Behanan.
UNC: Doubt that they can make a tournament now. 
We will be fine against these teams. 

mh277907's picture

UNC, I would imagine, will finish around 22-9 with wins over MSU, UK and Louisville plus any wins over Notre Dame, Duke, Cuse and Pitt. Even at 20-11 or 19-12, I still think they get in barring an epic collapse in conference play.


Tommy's picture

Top 2 storylines for me so far this season:
1 - The emergence of Amir Williams
He's gone from making me hate basketball, to an imposing presence in the paint on both sides of the ball.  This is why you have patience with a guy of his stature.  He has finally developed some strength with the ball (more a mental thing than physical it seems) and even the beginnings of a bona fide back-to-the-basket low block repertoire.  When he leaves the game for rest or fouls, the drop off is most noticeable on defense however.  He has a become a true rim protector.  If he keeps this up in Big Ten play, it won't be long before the NBA scouts are drooling.
2 - The debut of Marc Loving
The guy is legit.  He has a smooth shot from 3, but attacks the basket like a veteran.  He has the length and versatility to play many different positions.  He is forcing Matta to find him minutes on a team stacked with talented upper-classmen.  He still has big strides to make on defense, but it's not hard to envision him being "The Guy" on future iterations of Buckeye basketball.
These 2 guys in my opinion have raised the possibilities for this team.  We are the Pacers of the NCAA, a well-balanced, experienced team with dominating defense.  I actually think we are built for March.

nightmuse's picture

Marc Loving reminds me of what we expected Q to be as a freshman.

Toilrt Paper's picture

Loving's basketball intellect is on a completely different level than that of Q's.
Loving has no psychological issues.
Loving allows the game to come to him. Q worries about being noticed enough to be a 1st round draft choice this year.

tennbuckeye19's picture

Amir has shown improvements in his game and I like what I am seeing from him, but I think we need to temper our enthusiasm a bit till we see him face some of the better teams in the conference. We'll see how he plays against MSU tomorrow night. I hope he shows up and plays well, but my fear is that if he doesn't play well he could regress.

nw_ohio_Buckeye's picture

Love ADV and the energy he brings. (Also pretty funny on Twitter.) However, for the time being can we please dispense with the "sharp-shooting guard" moniker?  Through 15 games my man is shooting 38.6% from the field and 61.1% from the line, which is last among the 9-man rotation from the field and 2nd to last from the line. While this could and should improve (as it did for the distinguished Mr. Threebler) currently his shooting stroke is suspect. I'm amazed he doesn't shoot better from the stripe. As a team they only shoot 68.8% from the line (and that could be a problem in close games & tournament games.) Props all around for our floppy-haired friend but he does need to zero in on the bullseye a bit. Go Bucks! Beat Sparty!

"The minute I think I'm getting mellow, I'm retiring. Who ever heard of a mellow winner?" ~ Woody Hayes 

RedStorm45's picture

I assume Kam Williams will be red-shirting then?
Unlike in years past, I like what each guy can bring off the bench.  Loving is developing into a really smooth 3/4 guy and can light it up.  Della Valle is improving every facet of his game (still struggles a bit on D) and is never afraid of any shot.  McDonald IMO brings more energy to the defensive end, rebounding, etc.  Still not polished but gives you 100% effort.  Thompson's offense hasn't been there outside of the dunks, but he's an underrated defender and with his length can guard multiple positions.
We saw it a bit against Notre Dame, but Thad will shorten his bench in big games.  First reduction to ADV, and then Loving.
I really like the problems in terms of matchups with Loving AND Q on the floor at the same time.

brylee's picture

Why shorten the bench in big games?

d5k's picture

Instead of big games I would use games that remain close throughout.  In general Thad wants his best 6 on the floor as much as possible which this year is Scott, Craft, Ross, Smith Jr, Thompson, Williams.  McDonald will have to play 10 mins+ every game as Amir cannot go 40.  But Loving and Della Valle are still a drop off in quality.  They will be used in foul trouble situations or if we need certain matchups like going small or more 3 point shooting on the floor vs. zone teams.  This could change if those 2 guys become little to no drop off in quality.  We comfortably played 8 guys big minutes last year as Ross emerged.

Kindell's picture

I have been really impressed with Loving as well.  He seems to always be in control and doesn't look phased by anything.  I also love that he is shooting 83 percent from the free throw line as a freshman.  A very interesting stat on Loving as well is his free throws attempted.  He is 5th on the team in attempts.  He has more attempts than Scott and Thompson, who both play a lot more minutes.  This tells me that he is aggressive and makes thing happen.

ScarletNGrey01's picture

Great that Mata is going deep to his bench so far this season.  The bucks are offensively challenged at times (at other times they light it up) but seem to always play tenacious D (kinda the opposite of the football team this season).  Agree with everyone on here about Loving, as fundamentally sound and smart a freshman as you could hope for, plays within himself, almost never presses, has a nice jump shot but can take it to the hole and make great reverse layups, hit the floater, he is going to be something special.

The will to win is not as important as the will to prepare to win. -- Woody Hayes

MichaelJ721984's picture

We have a huge test tomorrow night at Spartyland that's for sure! Looking forward to see how they play.

Michigan sucks.

BassDropper's picture

There are no elite CBB teams this year. Ohio State is every bit as good as their #3 ranking. I was a little skeptical myself, but I've been watching a ton of ball these past couple of weeks and I still haven't seen a team I would be comfortable saying would beat the Buckeyes 6 out of 10 times. 

  • Craft, Scott and Smith are the best defensive back court in the NCAA. 
  • Q Ross has put together a solid month, pretty much what we expected from him this season
  • Amir has shown more improvement than any of us thought
  • Marc Loving provides great minutes off the bench
  • Della Valle has put together a few nice game. If he keeps it up he could be a nice addition coming off the bench.


Seattle Linga's picture

AC sure looks like a freshman - he'll be locking down offensive players when he's 75 years old. Great job men - keep it going.

Nick's picture

I think this is a good team, but it's hard to say how good they are. We will definitely have a better idea after the MSU game who I think is a legitimate contender for the title this year.
I think this team needs to be careful of offensive droughts and should be liberal in subbing after a few minutes of not scoring.This isn't a great shooting team and that could really hurt us come March. 

jbirmmd's picture

There are a lot of good comments here, so I will just say that I really love the way this team is made up and I think they have a lot of potential to make a deep run come March, assuming they get a favorable set of match ups (which is critical for all but a very few super elite teams).    They are a lot of fun to watch and very easy to root for as a group.