Thinned Out? Buckeyes Don’t Think So

By Jeff Rapp, March 28th, 2010

ST. LOUIS – Ohio State head coach Thad Matta and Tennessee counterpart Bruce Pearl made it clear in the days leading up to their teams’ regional semifinal at the Edward Jones Dome Friday night that they admired each others’ personnel.

With five starters standing between 6-5 and 6-8 the Buckeyes mirror the Pearl way – athletic, interchangeable parts that can mesh on offense and switch and help effectively on defense.

Tennessee is blessed with three players 6-7 or taller who can play comfortably in any area of the court and the roster is littered with lengthy and agile players.

The only difference is UT is one of the deepest teams in the country this season. Ohio State, meanwhile, features a rotation that often is as small as six and occasionally stretches to seven.

At first glance, especially if you ask Pearl, it would appear that depth discrepancy was the difference in Tennessee’s 76-73 victory over OSU Friday night here at the Edward Jones Dome, a win that propelled the Volunteers to the Elite Eight and ended the Buckeyes’ season at 29-8.

Just 3:33 into the game, the Buckeyes were enjoying a 13-7 lead but Pearl sent in reserve guards Melvin Goins and Cameron Tatum. Moments later, he called on another guard, Josh Bone, and his son, forward Steven Pearl.

Conversely, Matta didn’t make a turn to his bench until the 13:43 mark, and that was to call on seldom-used Jeremie Simmons for David Lighty, who had just picked up his second foul.

And so it went, with Pearl farming out key minutes to 10 different players and Matta relying heavily on his latest Thad Five, starters Evan Turner, Jon Diebler, Will Buford, Lighty and Dallas Lauderdale. Turner, Diebler and Buford, in fact, never left the floor and logged 40 minutes apiece.

This, of course, is nothing new and yet it is borderline remarkable. Coming into the contest with the Volunteers, Diebler was averaging a team-high 37.1 minutes per game followed by Lighty’s 36.6, Turner’s 35.6 and Buford’s 34.2. Lauderdale (25.0) is the only starter not in that stratosphere since he does receive relief from 6-9 Kyle Madsen (13.5).

As Matta eschewed farming out regular court time to seniors Simmons and P.J. Hill and allotting hardly any at all to reserve frontliners Zisis Sarikopouplos and Nikola Kecman, OSU fans constantly wondered how this six-pack of Buckeyes could hold up to the Big Ten grind.

The answer is twofold: The Buckeyes not only survived but prospered behind the grit of the players themselves and the directives of strength and conditioning coach Dave Richardson.

It may be a long road to the Final Four but apparently it is one that can be reached with a thin bench. As far as the Buckeyes are concerned they laid the short-rotation fears to rest by winning three games in as many days to capture the Big Ten Tournament title.

In the March 14 championship against Minnesota, Ohio State blew open a close game and looked rejuvenated in the decisive second-half run.

“Quite honestly, I think they found another gear,” Matta said afterward. “During the first half I felt there were 10 exhausted guys out on the floor. I think Dave’s plays he made in that two-minute stretch got us sparked and we found another gear of energy and we kind of rode that.

“I told them we need 20 minutes of the highest energy we’ve got and I thought they did a very good job of following through with it.”

It may seem like a lot to ask of an iron lineup but Lighty is a fourth-year junior, Turner and Diebler are juniors and Buford is a valuable sophomore.

“They’re veterans, so they know how to take care of their bodies,” Richardson told SportsRappUp.com. “I think when you’re young sometimes when you try to do that it doesn’t work.

“These guys have been doing it for so long. They know they have to get in the training room and get the cryo, get the ice baths. The have to foam roll, they have to stretch. They know they have to do that. We don’t have to fight them to make them do things like that.”

“There is a process we call restoration where they have to go through things like that to kind of restore that and get ready for the next day.”

Still, it takes a special group of athletes to want to rinse and repeat through a 37-game season.

“We call it motor,” Richardson said. “These guys, all of them are just very competitive. They love to play basketball and they just keep going. They know we need them to do it and they want to be in there when it’s on the line. That’s part of it, too.”

Matta hired Richardson away from Miami (Fla.) in 2005 after his initial season as Ohio State’s head coach. The results were nearly immediate.

“One of the first things I asked him when he got here is, ‘Can you make guys tougher?’ ” Matta said. “And he said, ‘Coach, I spent three weeks in below-zero weather in a sleeping bag in Alaska when I was in the Army. I know what toughness is.’ I think he does a great job in that regard.”

“His first year here when we won the Big Ten with Je’Kel (Foster) and James (Sullinger) and Terence (Dials), he took them in the summer and really got them in top shape. Then we started practice and he said, ‘I had no idea you practiced at the pace and the speed and as hard as you guys do. I’m a little bit nervous about maybe wearing down.’ So I think he’s done a pretty good job of knowing what our guys are going to be going through throughout the course of the season.”

Richardson fears were founded when that 2005-06 team seemed to burn out in the postseason.

This season, after several preconference road tests and a grueling 18-game Big Ten season, the Buckeyes still had the juice to win the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis and survive first- and second-round trials in the NCAA Tournament.

Part of the reason for that has been dialing down some of the weight room work during the season. For example, before heading to St. Louis the Buckeyes still lifted weights but were careful not to exhaust their legs in conditioning drills. Also, Matta has shortened practice time.

“I think we learned from it,” Richardson said. “When I came in, I wanted to make a point about conditioning and where we needed to be, so we conditioned hard, real hard. Very hard. After watching the first week in practice, I knew immediately that there was going to be an issue. So I’ve had to pull back over the year because of how Coach Matta conducts preseason and in-season practices.

“I had to adjust. I had to do less volume and more intensity. You’re doing the same amounts of things but you’re smaller amounts at higher intensity. And Thad, he’s adjusted as well.”

Pearl, though, offered indirectly critical comments after Friday’s regional semifinal of Matta’s insistence to keep his rotation tight and praised himself for using more players.

“We always talk about our 10 or 11 guys versus their six or seven or eight, depending upon what the rotations are,” Pearl said. “I just think it makes for better chemistry. It was something that Tom Davis taught me, and it’s something I’ve stuck with. It’s something I’ve encouraged young coaches to try to do.

“We all have five or six guys that are better than the other three or four. We all do. In order to develop talent and in order to develop your bench, you’ve got to play them.”

Pearl even opened his remarks by saying he felt “fatigue was a factor in the second half.”

Matta fired back when asked, once again, to answer for his approach.

“I think that so many people with the fatigue issue … the people that say that are overweight and eat bad food.”

Richardson no doubt would have smiled if he were in the room to hear Matta’s response.

“I don’t think it’s an issue,” said the strength and conditioning coach. “We just do what we do. And Vince O’Brien and the medical staff, they do a great job taking care of the guys after games and in between games. And again, it helps a lot when the guys do their part.”

And the players insist that their preparation allows them to gut out a 40-minute battle.

“It’s amazing what we do,” Lighty said. “Crazy workouts.”

“If you go in the weight room, it’s not like we’re just walking around and lifting weights,” Diebler said. “We’re doing a lot of lifting and a lot of conditioning as well.”

Added Turner, “It’s just pushing yourself. Being tired and lasting 40 minutes is a mental thing. I think during workouts we all push ourselves and push each other to the next level. We don’t think about breaking down; we think about getting the job done. That came from maturity and being hungry. Coach Rich always tells us, ‘Don’t try to do, fight through it, battle through it, enjoy the moment and enjoy the struggle,’ and that’s what we do.”

Madsen laughs when asked about the pudgy teenager that arrived to the program compared to the well-fit warrior he’s become. Lauderdale also has made major strides under Richardson.

“I think that’s probably been the biggest difference for Dallas, his conditioning and getting his body fitter,” Matta said. “He’s been very dedicated with his diet and the offseason work that he’s done. Without a question I think that’s been probably the biggest thing for him.

“If you watch him now on defense he’s a great communicator. He talks a lot, where maybe the past couple years he was just trying to breath out there.”

This summer Richardson again will have the benefit of working with several returning, veteran players. He also will get his first crack at the nation’s top incoming recruiting class, which includes 6-9, 260-pound power forward Jared Sullinger, the top prepster in the country.

“(After Jared committed) we had time to do nothing but watch the program and I’m telling you, Coach Rich, we have nothing but respect for him,” said Satch Sullinger, the father of Jared and James. “If you want to become good with Coach Rich then you can become good. You’ve got to want to become good first. He can’t do it by himself.

“But that man is outstanding at what he does. He’ll get you there.”