Iona Preview: Small Lineup Could Benefit Buckeyes
By Patrick Murphy
COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Ohio State Buckeyes pride themselves on being a defense-first team. They are allowing just under 60 points per game this season while playing in a slow-it-down, defense-oriented Big Ten.
That all changes Friday night.
Entering the NCAA Tournament against 14-seed Iona, Ohio State (26-7, 13-5 Big Ten) will see a pace they have not faced all season. In fact, Iona (20-13, 11-7 MAC) will look to do the opposite of Ohio State’s previous opposition, Wisconsin, as they will push the tempo and look to score early and often.
“I think we’ve played a lot of styles this year in the Big Ten,” said junior Aaron Craft.
“Some people that like to get up and down and people that like to slow it down a little bit. (Iona) is obviously more on the push it, trap side of things.”
“They’re obviously a great team,” he said.
“They have a couple of guys on their team that can really score the ball and can really get out and put the ball in the basket in a number of ways. It’s going to be a big team defensive effort this week, and that’s what we’re trying to work on.”
Head Coach Tim Cluess’ men are given the green light to shoot, specifically his guards. His starters at the one and two spots, senior Lamont “Momo” Jones and junior Sean Armand, have combined for 964 shots this season, yet both shoot 44 percent from the field.
Iona is the No. 2 scoring team in the country at 80.7 points per game. This is not just against weak competition either, as the Gaels put up 94 and 81 points in wins over Wake Forest and at Georgia this year.
The Gaels do not have a player taller than 6-8, while the Buckeyes play five players 6-7 or taller. While Ohio State’s defense has been good all year, this smaller, quicker, Iona team could cause them problems.
One strategy coach Thad Matta may use is to pound the paint and take advantage of OSU’s size, he also may go to a small lineup that has been successful for the Buckeyes recently.
This lineup features Craft and Shannon Scott at the guard positions, with Sam Thompson or Lenzelle Smith playing the three. LaQuinton Ross is at the four, and Deshaun Thomas has been used as an undersized center to create mismatches.
Matta is able to optimize his scoring with this lineup – with quicker players and capable shooters – while continuing to have high-pressure defense on the ball handlers. Ohio State has not gone to this lineup all that much throughout the season, but it could be effective against Iona.
One key to this lineup is how it relies on natural ability of guys like Thompson and Ross.
“Those two, with the length, with their size, with their athleticism and obviously when Sam is knocking shots down, which he has… and LaQuinton,” Matta said.
“I hope has settled into a this is what I need to do… that’s ultimately what you want as a coach.”
Having these two comfortable and in the flow, both offensively and defensively, makes this lineup much more effective. The other key is Scott, who is part of the feared combo of defensive guards – along with Craft – that this lineup provides.
The sophomore point guard did not come to Columbus as a defensive-minded player, but has grown into that role. Matta credits Scott’s development to a change in mentality.
“I give Shannon a ton of credit for being perceptive enough to understand what do I have to do to help this basketball team,” Matta said Wednesday.
“He has really embraced that (defensive role) and you see him excited, you see him with a look in his eyes that he wants to be a really good defender and that helps our team.”
Despite playing just over 20 minutes per game this season, Scott was named to the Big Ten All-Defensive team, alongside Craft, who he has battled with in practice for the last two years.
“He is very pesky,” said Craft of his teammate.
“He does a really good job of not quitting on plays so if you get by him or you think he gets hit by a screen, he’s always right beside you right away so you really have to be careful with the ball.”
Many guards who have gone against Scott and Craft have not been able to take care of the ball against these two and it has led to transition baskets.
In speaking about his recent offensive production, Craft stated that he “gets back to the roots.”
“Play defense, let’s get some easy buckets in transition, and take what they give us,” he said.
While these other four guys are important offensively, the key all year has been Thomas, yet the junior has not shot well lately.
“I feel locked in,” Thomas said of getting over his struggles.
“I’m just going to be ready. Whatever play is drawn for me, I’m going to be ready to shoot. I’m going to be ready and focused.”
While he may not have a great percentage recently, the small lineup has forced other aspects of Thomas’ game to come to the forefront. He has realized he can affect the game in other ways, with his defensive energy and rebounding, especially if other guys’ shots are falling.
The small lineup has, and will likely continue to be, a spark for the Buckeyes.