To foul, at Ohio State, is to commit an act of weakness. "That's what we preach," says coach Thad Matta. "If you're focused and dialed in on defense, you foul less, and we want our guys in a mindset of not fouling."
And so, as the Buckeyes are the nation's best defensive team at midseason, playing even stingier D than their Greg Oden-led '07 Final Four squad, it's not only because forwards Jared Sullinger, Deshaun Thomas and Dallas Lauderdale are excellent defensive rebounders who limit opponents to mostly one-shot-and-done possessions. Or that their perimeter starters are so long -- David Lighty and William Buford are 6-foot-5, and Jon Diebler is 6-6 -- that they disrupt an inordinate number of passes and challenge most jump shooters.
Ohio State is a title contender, in part, because it's America's amazing, hard-guarding, rarely ever-fouling basketball team. It allows a nation-low 0.187 free-throw attempts per field-goal attempt, a statistic referred to as free-throw rate. There's a commonly held belief that zone-defense teams are better-insulated against foul trouble, yet the Buckeyes play exclusively man-to-man. There's also a belief that teams that rarely foul play too conservatively to force many turnovers, yet OSU ranks third in the nation in turnover percentage (at 27.3).
The Buckeyes are an anomaly to the extent that no other team in the top 10 in turnover percentage this season even ranks in the top 100 in free-throw rate:
Ohio State is also an anomaly to the extent that in the previous five Division I seasons, only one top-10 turnover-forcing team has also finished in the top 50 in free-throw rate: the crazy, always-pressing, always-running 2009 VMI squad, which didn't make the NCAA tournament. Ohio State would be the first elite team of the one-and-done era with this kind of statistical profile.
The Buckeyes have only recently become adept at forcing turnovers, but Matta-led teams have a pattern of whistle-avoidance that predates his arrival at OSU. (See chart below.) In '03-04, the year before he came to Columbus, the Buckeyes ranked 222nd in defensive free-throw rate; his first season there, in '04-05, they ranked 32nd. Every year since, they've ranked in the top 10.
The no-fouls strategy was a necessity in Matta's previous job at Xavier. In '02-03, his second season there, he used mostly a seven-man rotation because he only had seven scholarship players, with future NBA All-Star David West as the only available center. The Musketeers couldn't afford to get in foul trouble, and so they had a defensive free-throw rate of 0.226, which ranked No. 1 in the nation. They managed to go 15-1 in the Atlantic 10 and earn a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament. Matta has 10 scholarship players available this season in Columbus, but he's been able to stick to a seven-man rotation, with freshmen Aaron Craft and Thomas receiving the only significant minutes off the bench.
Matta's secret to whistle-avoidance goes beyond merely having long, athletic players and telling them not to foul. One of the foundations of his philosophy came from something he heard while serving as an assistant at Butler in the early '90s, and listening to the Indianapolis radio show of then-Pacers coach Larry Brown. "If you can guard your man when he doesn't have the ball," Matta recalls Brown saying, "then it's 10 times easier to guard him when he gets the ball." The point being: You avoid fouls and play effective D if you're in quality position ahead of time, not reacting after your man catches a pass. That kind of preparedness can only be achieved through a combination of effort, mental sharpness and advance scouting.
No one on the Buckeyes puts this into practice better than Lighty, a senior who's regarded as one of the nation's most versatile, elite defenders. He regularly draws tough defensive assignments, yet commits just 2.2 fouls per 40 minutes. "If you do your work early -- fighting hard through screens, and anticipating where your man is cutting without the ball -- then you don't have to worry about fouling as much when he has it," Lighty says. "If we're fouling, that means we're not playing hard enough."
Lighty, who has fouled out just twice in his college career, now commits bad fouls so infrequently that he can remember each one. He described his worst of the year -- a play in the first half against South Carolina on Dec. 18, where he correctly identified what the Gamecocks were running from the scouting report ("I knew it, and I even called it out," he said) but failed to get in proper position to chase his man off a baseline double-screen. The ref caught Lighty trying a quick grab-move to keep pace. He was forced to watch it again on tape because Ohio State, as a policy, has its players review every foul they've committed.
"In film, we want our guys to know why they fouled, and how to avoid it next time," Matta says. Matta, perhaps more than any other D-I coach, also places an emphasis on acclimating his players to refereeing (or, as he calls it, "gaining respect for officials") in the preseason. The Buckeyes have unofficial refs working their practice scrimmages 3-4 times each week in October and early November.
The film review, extensive exposure to refereeing, and Matta's preaching pay dividends over time. Lighty's fellow-senior counterpart on the wing, Diebler, is now so good at evading whistles that he gets called for only 1.1 fouls per 40 minutes. Lauderdale, a 6-8 senior with a 7-5 wingspan ("God," he says, "has blessed me with tremendous length") has gradually become more adept at jumping second, rather than first, when trying to block opponents' shots. He committed 5.6 fouls per 40 minutes as a freshman, but has seen his foul rates drop from to 4.5 as a sophomore, 3.5 as a junior and 3.1 this season.
Lauderdale said that venerated Big Ten official Ed Hightower chided him about his early, foul-happy ways during Ohio State's win over Indiana on Dec. 31: "[Hightower] told me that when I was a freshman, he broke me in and showed me the ropes of the Big Ten. Now, we have a good player-ref relationship; I know if he calls a foul, I fouled. I just say, 'Good call.' "
Lighty admits to talking more with refs -- but says he doesn't usually do it to file complaints. He prefers to ask, "How do I avoid that whistle next time?" He's always gathering information, because he has no interest in being perceived as weak.