Ohio State Rolling More Depth to Maintain Aggressive Play Style Under Jake Diebler

By Andy Anders on February 22, 2024 at 7:00 am
Jake Diebler
Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch/USA TODAY Network

It’s one thing to say you’re going to play aggressively on both ends of the floor and push the pace of a game, it’s another to sustain such a level of effort for 40 minutes.

That takes a great deal of conditioning. For an Ohio State team that has often faded late in games this season – the Buckeyes have allowed not one but two 18-point second-half comebacks this year – extra demands on player fitness throughout a game seemed like a lot to ask.

So instead, the Buckeyes utilized their depth. Nine players played double-digit minutes on Sunday in an upset victory over then-No. 2 Purdue, OSU's first game under interim head coach Jake Diebler. Eleven Ohio State hoopers found the floor in total.

Golden Gophers
16 - 9
Williams Arena
minneapolis, mn

It’s a trend that Diebler intends to stick with as Ohio State attempts to snap its school record-tying 16-game road losing streak at Minnesota on Thursday.

“The urgency and pace with which we practiced at for the few days leading into the game was revealing to me,” Diebler said. “In order to play that way come game time, we may need to get into our bench a little bit more. I also think there’s some guys who I needed to be open to at least giving an opportunity to get out there and show some things.”

There have been four other games this season in which Ohio State played nine players for double-digit minutes. Two were 17- and 20-point wins over Western Michigan and Miami (Ohio). Another was a 25-point loss at Northwestern.

The only other time nine Buckeyes played at least 10 minutes in a somewhat contested contest came at Wisconsin in a 62-54 loss that was Chris Holtmann’s final game as head coach on Feb. 13. Even in that affair, Ohio State’s bench played 14 fewer minutes (60) than it did against Purdue (74).

Star point guard Bruce Thornton was the only Buckeye to play more than 28 minutes versus the Boilermakers, receiving the same 35 minutes he had against the Badgers.

“From one through 15, our buy-in was really good for those practices (before Purdue),” Diebler said. “I think that warranted – even though some of the rotations were short – it warranted at least some opportunity.”

Diebler reiterated on Wednesday a point he made last Friday – at his first press conference since being named Ohio State’s interim head coach – that finding success with this year’s team wouldn’t be about “wholesale changes.”

There isn’t enough time for that. It’s about small shifts in approach. More depth rotating through the lineup to facilitate more aggression seems to be the shift.

“We’ve found something with practicing with more urgency and just having a more aggressive mentality that we want to continue to do,” Diebler said. “We’ve gotta do some specific things for Minnesota, certainly, but a lot of it is about just maintaining that mentality.”

“We’ve found something with practicing with more urgency and just having a more aggressive mentality that we want to continue to do.”– Jake Diebler

It helps when depth pieces contribute in the fashion they did against the Boilermakers.

Forward Zed Key had a career-high five steals with nine points, a huge thorn in the side of star Purdue center Zach Edey. Guard Dale Bonner collected seven points including a crucial late-game triple. Forward Devin Royal grabbed five points and three rebounds. Even center Austin Parks got in on the action, scoring his first career field goal.

Now it’s all about sustaining the team’s efforts heading into Minnesota.

“We had a good practice yesterday,” Diebler said. “It wasn’t perfect by any means, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t at least – I don’t know if nervous is the right word – but I wasn’t at least thinking about, ‘What is our mentality gonna be?’”

Diebler said a team meeting before the Buckeyes' first practice of the week helped ease his nerves and set everyone on course. 

“I just asked the guys, ‘OK, why did we win?’ And had them tell me what they thought was important, what they were feeling on the court in the game,” Diebler said. “We talked through that. They listed off four or five things, and then we just talked about being committed to doing that in practice. And they followed through with that. There was no emotional letdown or anything from my perspective, and our staff’s perspective, in practice.”

Diebler added that an appearance at practice from Michael Redd, a former first-team All-Big Ten guard for Ohio State who enjoyed a 12-year NBA career, also helped encourage the squad.

Winning in hostile Big Ten environments has been far easier said than done for Ohio State the last two years. In avoiding a school record-breaking 17th consecutive road loss, the Buckeyes will need to replicate the result of their 84-74 victory over Minnesota on Dec. 3. The Gophers hold a 16-9 record on the year with a 7-7 mark in Big Ten play.

“It’s really tough to win on the road,” Key said. “We have really good teams in the Big Ten this year and they’re gonna do anything and everything to win. And it’s easier for them to win at home, obviously, they have the backing and the fans and stuff. That’s really it. The fans, the atmosphere, in the gym, it shifts when you’re away and that makes it extremely tough to play.”

Jamison Battle racked up a career-high 25 points against his former team in the last meeting between Ohio State and Minnesota.

Minnesota forward Dawson Garcia will be the top threat to watch out for. He dropped 36 points against Ohio State in December, the most ever for a Buckeye opponent in Value City Arena. He averages 17.5 points and 6.5 rebounds per game this year, both team highs.

“I played against him going back to AAU and he was a tough matchup then,” Key said. “He’s a great player. He knows his strengths on the court and he plays into them. ... He’s their leading scorer, leading rebounder and we’ve got to hone in on that and take away his strengths, try to limit his strengths. We know that he’s gonna be fired up, ready to go tomorrow to play against us. So just lock in. Lock in on the details.”

The Gophers’ interior scorers are a legitimate threat in general. They shoot 55.3% from two-point range this season, 36th-best in the country. Guard Cam Christie provides the team’s top perimeter threat, draining 42.3% of his threes this season and picking up 11.3 points per game.

Ohio State will hope to use depth – and, in turn, aggression – to its advantage when it tips off against Minnesota at 8 p.m. Thursday on Big Ten Network.

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