Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Game Preview: Oakland at Ohio State

Game 15: Oakland (7-7) at Ohio State (11-0)
Thursday, December 23, 2010 | 8:00pm
TV: Big Ten Network | Radio: WDFM-AM (1130)

It has been a long week since the Oakland Golden Grizzlies upset then seventh-ranked Tennessee in Knoxville. The team came up short in Ann Arbor in an in-state battle with Michigan then lost to its old rival Valparaiso in the final of the Lou Henson Tournament at the O'rena. There was a win over non-Division I school Rochester College in that mix as well, but the black and gold clad ballers haven't exactly been stellar since winning the biggest non-conference road game in school history. So heading into a road game against the second-ranked team in the country (the fourth game in six days, too), what should we expect of the Grizzlies? This is a team that, up until Michigan, had been in every game against Big Ten teams, but is it possible that ride wore them down emotionally and physically? Whatever the case, we'll find out in Columbus on Thursday night against an Ohio State team that is rolling and looks like a national title contender.

A Battle of Big Men
When Ohio State originally released its schedule for 2010-11, Oakland University was not on it. From an individual match-up perspective, that was a major bummer considering tOSU was thought to be a major force with the addition of freshman big man Jared Sullinger. It was a game we hoped would be on the schedule back in May when this blog first started, back before Sullinger had even played, because the consensus was the dude was just that good and presumably would be a great match-up for Oakland's Keith Benson. Well, somehow the stars aligned, and Ohio State announced it had completed its schedule with a game against Oakland. Fast-forward a few months and Sullinger has been everything folks thought he'd be and more. Even though he's slightly undersized when compared to Benson, he uses his skill, motor, and big frame to grab rebounds and fight for buckets in the paint. He's a large reason why Ohio State has been this good so early in the season and has found himself in the discussion for freshman of the year and national player of the year. Big stuff. For his part, Benson has played admirably against the toughest of opponents in a schedule that was partly designed to give him the exposure that Sullinger gets every night. This game is perhaps Benson's last chance to go up against a sure-fire first round pick this season. Benson has never had trouble getting up for the big games, as we have seen time and again throughout his career at Oakland. While individual match-ups should never be more important than the team game, there is no doubt that this one is incredibly exciting from an entertainment point of view. Sullinger is a Columbus native who chose to go to Ohio State. Benson is from Oakland County and plays for its namesake institution. Sullinger is a freshman, Benson a senior. Sullinger's per game averages this season: 17.6 points, 10.2 rebounds; Benson's: 17.4 points, 10.4 rebounds. It's the best big man in the state of Ohio versus the best in the state of Michigan.

All They Do Is Win
Ever since Jared Sullinger's big performance against Florida, there has been an uptick in folks comparing the freshman big man to former one-and-done great Greg Oden. And since people have started to realize just how good the rest of the team has been, many analysts are also wondering if this is Thad Matta's best team since the 2006-07 squad he led to the national championship game. In my mind, there are a lot of similarities, but this year's team has a few valuable upperclassmen leaders whereas the 06-07 squad was dominated by one-and-doners - and that makes this Buckeye team that much more intimidating. But to take a more objective look, I pulled some stats from both years in an attempt to compare. The 2006-07 stats include Big Ten play and NCAA tournament games, whereas the stats for 2010-11 are just through the games played this year, so the latter will probably look a bit different in April. With that said, there are some striking similarities. Both teams did most of their damage in the paint (no doubt thanks to Sullinger and Oden) but could also kill you from beyond the arc (hello, Jon Diebler and Daequan Cook). Both teams had formidable offenses and played killer defense while taking care of the ball and always finding the open man (TOPG and APG numbers are top-20 in the nation). Finally, both teams have identical fouls per game averages. In 2006-2007, 11.3 FPG was the second lowest in the nation, while this year's 11.3 figure is third. Coach Thad Matta may be a great recruiter, but he clearly knows how to get his players to play smart with their abilities as well. That's a deadly combination.

Key Personnel Match-Up
Oakland's Perimeter Defense vs. Ohio State's Perimeter Shooters
Since we already highlighted the Benson vs. Sullinger match-up, let's take a look at the other area where Ohio State can be deadly from: the perimeter. Among guys who play more than 20 minutes per game, tOSU has two players shooting better than 40% from deep, seniors David Lighty (42.5%) and Jon Diebler (46.6%). Both players have had games where they've gone off from downtown. Lighty's came against UNC-Asheville when he shot 7-10 while Diebler did his damage against Florida Gulf Coast by going 9-14. In addition, freshman point guard Aaron Craft (38.9%) has proven effective from superhoop land when he looks for the shot. Oakland had a rather miserable defensive performance against Valparaiso on Tuesday night when they allowed the Crusaders to shoot 53% from three. If that happens again in Columbus, the final score will not be pretty.

Ohio State Player To Watch: William Buford
Entering the season, one of the questions about this year's Ohio State roster revolved around who would act as the team's primary distributor after Evan Turner left for the NBA. It looked like William Buford would fill that void, but the emergence of freshman Aaron Craft as a "true point guard" has allowed Buford to play in his more natural position off-the-ball. While his scoring numbers are down a bit from last season, Buford has upped his assist averages and his field goal percentage. Buford is a capable rebounder as well and gives the Buckeyes another threat to score from offensive boards.

Oakland Player To Watch: Will Hudson
Will Hudson has been the most consistent Golden Grizzly this season on both ends of the court and has played very smart while on the floor sans the Wright State game. There are not too many teams that have two solid front-court players like Oakland, but Ohio State does in the duo of Sullinger and Dallas Lauderdale. Hudson has played solid defense against imposing bigs this season and will get a similar challenge with either of those two and possibly freshman Deshaun Thomas at times. On the other end, Oakland will need Will The Thrill to be as consistent as ever, particularly on the offensive glass.

Oakland has twice traveled to Columbus to take on Ohio State. The two meetings came in the earliest days of Division I for Coach Kampe during the 1998-99 and 1999-2000 seasons. The Golden Grizzlies lost both contests. OSU coach Thad Matta was not yet at Ohio State back then, but he has coached against Coach Kampe. While at Xavier, he led his Muskateers to a 76-66 win at home against Oakland in the 2003-04 season.

Opponent Q&A
We caught up with Chris from for our opponent Q&A for this game. Despite the football-focused name, Eleven Warriors offers OSU basketball coverage as well.

For folks who haven't had much of a chance to see Ohio State this year, what is it that has this team off to an undefeated start with key wins over Florida, Florida State, and South Carolina? What is this team's MO? How are they getting it done?

Without sounding like a homer, this team is doing virtually everything at a very high level. Before Tuesday’s game against UNC-Asheville, the Buckeyes were ranked 8th nationally in both points per possession and fewest points allowed per possession.

They are multi-dimensional offensively with Jared Sullinger owning the paint, Jon Diebler shooting nearly 48% from behind the arc, William Buford expanding his all-around offensive game, David Lighty providing some athletic slash and Aaron Craft hitting 50% from the floor when teams practically dare him to shoot. They are also a very unselfish group that looks to make the extra pass, but not in a Globetrotters kind of way, as evidenced by an average of 17 assists against 11 turnovers per game.

Defensively, Matta has officially shelved the zone he was forced to use much of the past two seasons. Ohio State hasn’t employed any significant full or half court press looks, but they do play a stifling man defense aided by length on the wings allowing for switching, when necessary, generating 18.4 turnovers while holding opponents to under 55 points per contest. Another signature of Matta coached teams, this squad commits the fewest fouls in the country.

Despite the undefeated start, what things could this team use work on? What can do they in these last few non-conference games to get better for Big Ten season? What weaknesses do they have?

Right now, the biggest weakness is a lack of depth. Matta is notorious for shortening his bench in conference play and realistically, I only see a max of seven guys in the regular rotation barring foul trouble. Craft is already kind of a de facto starter in that he typically sees more minutes than Lauderdale but other than that, the bench is really comprised of freshmen Deshaun Thomas and (potentially) Jordan Sibert. Thomas has struggled a bit with the transition of big time national high school star to role player – dude never met a shot he didn’t like – but once he accepts his role for this season and subsequently gets his basketball IQ in check, at 6'6", he has the ability to be a factor in Big Ten play. Sibert, on the other hand, will be called upon much less often to contribute but dude's got a confident stroke and a quick release, he just needs consistent defensive intensity to match. With a logjam of experienced and talented wings, Sibert will be stapled to the bench barring injury for anything other than mop up duty. Other than depth, it would be nice to see the veterans Buford (67%) and Lighty (65%) shoot a little better from the stripe considering the number of attempts they’ll rack up off dribble drives. I suppose it would also be nice if both shot a little better from distance to complement Diebler.

Coach Thad Matta has primarily used a short bench this season, but freshman Aaron Craft has been able to crack the line-up averaging about 26 minutes per game while limiting his turnovers over the last few games. What did Ohio State fans like most about Craft, and how does his skillset help the Buckeyes?

As I personally expected, Craft has been an outstanding addition because he is a true point guard on a roster loaded with guys who can score. His ability to bring the ball up the court and run the offense frees up Buford, and to a lesser extent Diebler and Lighty, from having to play out of position. Craft is one of those grinder types that plays within himself - rarely trying to do too much offensively - plus he's a terrific on-ball defender. In conference play, against stud point guards like Kalin Lucas and Talor Battle, Craft's currently overlooked defensive prowess may prove just as vital as his ability to orchestrate the offense. Though he's not a starter, Craft is averaging more minutes (26.7) than center Lauderdale (20.8) so far this season as Thad Matta has exploited match-ups; however, with Oakland's size on the baseline, we might not see quite as much of Craft on Thursday night.

The big in-game match-up for this game is between Keith Benson and Jared Sullinger. Sullinger has been everything anyone hoped for and more, while Keith Benson has continued to impress with big performances against high majors. When you throw in OU's Will Hudson and OSU's Dallas Lauderdale, we have two solid frontcourts going at it. What will OSU have to do to win this individual match-up? How does the gameplan change, if at all?

Not having yet faced a lot of teams with some actual bulk to go along with their height (see South Carolina's stringbean baseliners) it's a little hard to say if/how the gameplan will change. Matta played it pretty much straight up against Florida State's Chris Singleton (6'9", 225) with Sullinger and Lighty taking turns holding him to eight points (2/9 FG) which reminds me, if you haven't seen Lighty play, he can effectively guard virtually any college player 6'10" or under despite standing just 6'5". My guess is Lauderdale plays a few more minutes than we've seen as of late and OSU plays straight up. If the Oakland bigs have success, you may see some wings come down to double. I'd also expect good pressure on the perimeter to limit as many entry passes to Benson's and Hudson's sweet spots as possible. What I don't expect to see is a packed zone of any kind. Lastly, I'm not sure Ohio State feels like they have to "win" this matchup to win the game. Despite Sullinger's early season exploits, this team is still very effective at scoring from beyond the arc with Diebler or via the midrange games of Lighty and Buford.

Thanks to Chris for answering our questions as well as he did. We appreciate the inside look at the Buckeyes.

The Extra Pass
Basketball Prospectus writer John Gasaway recently wrote a piece for on Ohio State examining how they've managed to get better despite losing last season's Player of the Year in Evan Turner. He notes that Sullinger is a big reason why:
But Sullinger's value to a team trying to replace a national player of the year has been immense. In effect, the freshman's presence has allowed a veteran like Diebler to simply continue doing what he's done before on offense: function as a highly efficient supporting player. Defenses collapsing on Sullinger in the paint also have to account for Diebler, who is hitting 48 percent of his 3s.
Sullinger's overall offensive efficiency is excellent, and if he were better than a 70 percent shooter at the line that efficiency would be stratospheric. The freshman draws nearly eight fouls for every 40 minutes he plays, a number that harkens back to the aforementioned Blake Griffin. Not only has he taken over Turner's duties as an outstanding defensive rebounder, Sullinger is also very good on the offensive glass. He makes 61 percent of his 2s and, perhaps most impressively, absolutely never commits a turnover.
Evan Turner was a straight-up baller, but it's possible Sullinger might be even better and could be the piece needed to get Ohio State back to the Final Four. Before they do that, however, Oakland will look to play spoiler to the team's thus far undefeated season.

As always, if you'd like to give your thoughts on the Oakland-Michigan game, you can head over to the Golden Grizzly Hoops forum to post with other fans before, during, and after the game: Game Thread.

1 comment:

  1. Great read, as always. Sullinger is a load and we have to find a way to keep Benson and Hudson out of foul trouble, but I agree that the key match up may be on the perimeter if we want to keep this game close. Very concerned about Diebler, Lighty, and Craft killing us from deep. As exhausting as it is for the OU players to have so many games crammed into the past few days, it must also be a challenge for you. So keep up the good work.