“He's a load inside. I thought we were able to attack him in certain ways and make it difficult for him, but at the end of the day, I thought it just wasn't quite enough.” - Chris Holtmann
In the weeks prior to Ohio State's much-anticipated matchup with its arch-rival, the Buckeyes had been able to overcome its biggest weakness. With no member of the rotation standing taller than 6'8", opposing big men had their way on the block against Holtmann's team, even as they had gone on an impressive streak of 10 wins in 11 games.
In the 87-81 upset win in Illinois last month, this mismatch was obvious from the opening tip, as the Illini's massive seven-footer, Kofi Cockburn, bullied the 6'7" E.J. Liddell right to the bucket. Though Liddell is quite strong for a college power forward, he still gave up five inches and almost fifty pounds to the Illinois center.
Despite allowing Cockburn 15 points on a perfect 7-7 mark from the floor to go with 11 rebounds (including six offensive boards), Ohio State eventually pulled away by draining 11of 21 threes that evening, resulting in an 87-81 victory.
While Iowa's Luka Garza plays with a very different style, he also had his way against the Buckeye bigs a few weeks later. But despite his 16 points, the Scarlet and Gray once again shot their way to an 89-85 win on a national stage.
Whether it be Cockburn, Garza, Minnesota's Liam Robbins, Purdue's Trevion Williams, or Indiana's Trayce Jackson-Davis - opposing bigs with more size than Liddell or Kyle Young have had little trouble finding their way to the basket. With one of the nation's best offenses, however, the Buckeyes had often found ways to simply outscore opposing bigs by trading a two-point shot on the block for a three at the other end.
Against Michigan's Hunter Dickinson and an equally potent crew of shooters, however, that approach finally failed.
Right away, it was apparent that Holtmann had no desire to watch the 7'2" freshman play one-on-one with the smaller Liddell. As Dickinson caught the ball in the post, Liddell made sure to take away the baseline while Young doubled to take away inside moves. Yet the rotation created from Young's help left a shooter open in the opposite corner and the massive center had no problem finding the open man.
In Juwan Howard's NBA-influenced system, the Wolverines often spread the floor and run high ball-screens with Dickinson as the screener. But these aren't necessarily designed to get the guards driving downhill or to get the big man rolling to the hoop. Instead, these high screens are meant to throw off the defense, creating higher-quality touches for Dickinson later in the possession.
For example, with the weak side of the floor overloaded, the Wolverines were able to force a switch on this screen, as Liddell stepped up on the ballhandler. Though he has good size for a guard, Eugene Brown was no match for Dickinson, meaning Justice Sueing was forced to leave his man and help. The three remaining Buckeyes were forced to zone up against four Michigan shooters, meaning it was only a matter of time until Dickinson found the open man.
These high ball screens were a common sight throughout the game, meant to make Liddell, the Buckeyes' best offensive weapon, work hard on both ends of the floor.
When run from the top of the key, Holtmann liked to counter the pick-and-roll by either hedging or trapping the ballhandler, both of which ask the screener's defender to step out on the dribbler. A third player must then roll leave his man to defender the rolling screener, with all five players eventually getting back to their initial defensive responsibilities once the action is taken away.
But the Wolverines often used the Buckeyes' plan against them, with Dickinson racing to get in position on the block while Liddell recovered, giving the big man easy looks.
“I thought his length and size, at the end of the day, bothered us," Holtmann said of Dickinson following the game. "So we'll have to figure out how to do a better job of that in certain situations. Give them credit. I think the shooting around him, the way they pass it and shoot it around him. They've got an older team that you can tell has played together and won.”
The only Buckeye defender who seemed capable of even bothering Dickinson was freshman Zed Key. Though not much taller than Liddell or Young, Key's strength and sheer mass kept Dickinson from gaining a decent position inside, forced instead to throw up long jump hooks rather than playing right at the rim.
But Key is nowhere near the same scoring threat as Liddell, meaning Holtmann had to pick his poison.
After giving up 45 points on 56% shooting in the first half, Holtmann's squad seemed energized and determined not to give up so many open shots after halftime. Yet the Wolverines never panicked, and instead worked the shot clock with off-ball movement before eventually finding Dickinson in good position on the second or third action.
The big man torched Ohio State for 22 points on 8-14 shooting, acting as the fulcrum for Howard's offense. Though the Buckeyes kept pace for 36 of the game's 40 minutes, it was due largely to Liddell and Duane Washington's ability to create their own shot, scoring on difficult isolations.
The Buckeyes had just 11 assists on 32 made field goals Sunday, while their opponents had a far easier time finding open shots, with 19 of 31 field goals coming via the pass of a teammate. Even as the Wolverines went "cold" in the second half after shooting a blistering 10-13 from three in the first, they were still getting wide-open looks after the Buckeyes rotated to help inside.
On this second half miss, the initial screen from Dickinson forces a domino effect of rotations as the Wolverines moved the ball all around the floor, resulting in all five Buckeyes standing in the lane as they watched an open perimeter shooter.
Such a shooting display was not surprising from the Wolverines, as they've consistently been one of the nation's best offenses this season. But watching Ohio State struggle to defend an opponent anchored around a talented big man was no revelation, either.
Whether it means playing Key more minutes against bigger, stronger post-players or changing the way they help Liddell on the block, the Buckeyes must find a way to defend the interior more effectively. If not, both trips to Indy next month may be shorter than expected.