Ohio State proves if you have the right players, depth is not an issue
Ohio State isn't deep enough to win it all. The Buckeyes have been in the top five for months. They have a player of the year candidate who will be no worse than an NBA lottery pick if he leaves school after this year. They have a fifth-year senior who has played in 10 NCAA tournament games, two other seniors and a junior, and a sixth-man freshman point guard who's 18 going on 30.
They can't win it all, though. They just don't have those quality players at the end of the bench. You never know when you're going to need your ninth-best player in the crucible of a tournament game. Guess San Diego State's third option off the bench, win fabulous prizes.
Talk about Madness.
Certain qualities are not overrated in college basketball in March. Good guard play is not overrated. Control-freak coaches need smart point guards. "Guys who can break you down, score for themselves and their teammates, and understand what the heck is going on out there,'' in the words of Purdue coach Matt Painter.
Using and defusing ball screens. That's not overrated. Not to get too technical here, but teams whose players are good at rolling off screens and nailing three-pointers -- and those who are equally adept at fighting through screens and preventing them -- are the teams that last past the first weekend.
"If you have enough guys who can make a play -- spot up for a shot off a screen or defend those people -- that's key,'' Indiana coach Tom Crean said. "So many of those games come down to the wire.''
Gus Johnson is not overrated. Listening to him call a tournament game is better than cheerleaders in your living room. Las Vegas during the first weekend is definitely not overrated, betting on every game and watching them all, until your head starts bobbing up and down involuntarily. Sports bars, big screens, office pools: Never, ever overrated.
Here's what's overrated: depth.
Thad Matta's Buckeyes will go to the NCAA tournament with five starters who have logged at least 31 minutes a game each. Jon Diebler, the senior guard, plays 35 minutes a game. Seven times, Diebler has logged all 40 minutes; three times, he has played 39 minutes.
Meantime, Deshaun Thomas, OSU's seventh man, is playing 15 minutes a night. The Buckeyes' third bench option, freshman guard Jordan Sibert, has played 175 minutes the whole season. Diebler practically does that in a busy week.
Apparently, Diebler is expected to be tripping over his tongue by halftime every night. As a team, Ohio State's Iron Five is either going to look like a marathon winner at the finish line, or foul out en masse. The notion that neither has occurred yet, in the Buckeyes' first 29 games, seems not to matter.
Some truth, please.
"The truth is, this time of year, six and seven men are playing the bulk of the minutes,'' Michigan coach John Bielein said this week.
Good players matter in March. If they're good and experienced, that's even better. Depth is not an issue when the players who play are named Jared Sullinger, Jon Diebler, David Lighty and William Buford. Did we mention Sullinger?
"Corliss Williamson.'' That's who Painter conjures when he sees Sullinger, Ohio State's dynamic freshman. Williamson helped Arkansas win it all in 1994. "There aren't a lot of 6-9, 260-pound guys who can move like that, and make good decisions with the ball," Painter stated.
Pundits who should know better play the no-depth card every year at this time. They overlook lots of obvious: In the tournament, TV timeouts last longer than some sitcoms. There is never a shortage of breathers. "When you get into the tournament, you get more time,'' Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said, simply.
TV TO's might drive you crazy. They're heaven sent for teams such as Ohio State.
In the last four minutes, coaches work every possession like they're prepping for neurosurgery. They're puppeteers. The last thing a coach is going to do is trust any player, let alone a bench guy, to make a play. It's so much easier to diagram a play to death. Most tournament games are close. A coach isn't going to finish a close game with a bench player on the floor, unless he has to.
Ohio State's players know the drill. It's not as if they're sprinters, suddenly asked to run a mile. Matta has pushed them all season. As Crean said, "It would be different if players aren't used to playing those kinds of minutes. But their bodies and their minds -- especially their minds -- are trained to play that way.''
As Matta himself explained, "The thing people don't realize is, we only have nine guys. We play half our bench quite a bit.'' While at Xavier in 2004, Matta came within a possession of beating Duke to reach the Final Four. He played a seven-man rotation that year. Asked this week to name the seven, Matta initially could recall only six.
The exception to the rule is foul trouble. A thin team gets in deep when it encounters a referee from a different conference, who doesn't call games the way the conference refs call them. This would bug the Buckeyes, except they don't foul out: Only five total disqualifications, all season. Diebler hasn't fouled out; Sullinger has fouled out just once.
They also have enough players who have played enough tournament games to adjust. Sullinger and point guard Aaron Craft might be rookies, but they play wisely. The Buckeyes "have so much talent, and they know how to play. They'll know how aggressive they can get,'' Crean said.
Depth is a bigger issue during the nightly slog of the regular season. Players are playing, studying, traveling or practicing six days a week. March comes with its own adrenaline, and the same bed for four days at a time.
Matta said he has been careful to limit practice time. He will pull his starters during blowouts, especially if he notices a Diebler or a Sullinger tugging on his shorts, or leaving a shot short. "This time of year, the big thing is to have guys ready on game night,'' he said.
Down Interstate 71 in Cincinnati, Xavier coach Chris Mack deals with the same no-depth situation. The Musketeers go seven deep, barely. Four of Xavier's starters average at least 30 minutes a game; two average more than 35. Somehow, the Musketeers have gone 14-1 since Jan. 6, and will make the tournament for the 10th time in the last 11 years.
It seems that the only place where depth is lacking in college basketball is in the understanding of how little it means in March. "Being deeper prepares you for a rainy day,'' Crean said. "But Next Man Up doesn't work very well in March, if the next man up can't make a positive impact.''