With the Buckeyes sitting at 22-0 and looking variably unstoppable and completely beatable from game to game, it brings a puzzle to mind: How is it that some of the best defensive minds in college basketball have yet to figure out a way to stop this offense?

Ohio State is playing with a number of freshman (though extraordinarily good ones) and using a fairly basic offensive play set.   Those are two traits that should be easily exploitable, and yet very good defensive teams have looked completely lost. Poor Matt Painter didn’t even come close, and he has to be one of the best young guns in the college basketball coaching scene.

But then, suddenly, Bill Carmody’s squad nearly caught the Buckeyes off-guard.  What was the difference between the Purdue game and the Northwestern game?  Did the Buckeyes simply shoot poorly? Partly.  Was there a difference between how Penn State defended the Bucks and how Purdue went about it? Actually, no.  Let’s sort out what these teams are doing to try to combat the Buckeyes, and what has worked so far.

First, it’s helpful to understand a little about the Buckeye offense.  Functionally, the Bucks work their best magic with a 4 guard, 1 center lineup. If you’ve seen an OSU game this season then you know that the Buckeyes are best with Aaron Craft (1), Jon Diebler (2), William Buford (3), David Lighty (4) and Jared Sullinger (5) on the floor (keep in mind that the numbers for the three experienced players are approximations at best).

This is a rather unusual set for a “big conference team” who can usually recruit and put a more balanced lineup on the floor.  The Buckeyes, however, make this strategy work magic for them.  Read on to see how.

Let us presume that we are a coach preparing to defend a team that likes to run 4 guards and a center, and that the center is the team’s best player.  Let’s also presume that this team is not Ohio State for the moment.  Is there a traditional method of defending such an offense?  As a matter of fact, there are several.  The easiest to comprehend will use a man defense.

Usually a 4 guard, 1 center team will lineup with their center posting up on one of the two “blocks” with the other four players spaced out evenly around the three point arc.  When running a man defense, the situation will look like the following graphic.  The “1″ man (the traditional point guard) has the ball.

In this illustration, the offense has spread the court on the perimeter, maximizing the spacing of the defense. They have also placed their center in position to receive a pass from 1 or 4.  The center will switch sides if the ball swings to 2 or 3, allowing him to remain in a position to catch an entry pass at all times.

Given that we know the opponent’s center is the best player on the team, we’re going to want to avoid going one-on-one against him as much as possible.  So, what should we do?

The answer depends a lot on what the team has on the outside, but the best option is as follows: We want to keep the guards covered as much as possible, but when the ball enters to the 5 man, we want to bring help to the paint.  Ostensibly, we’ll double team the center whenever he has the ball.  The usual way to do this is to bring the closest available help.  Let’s say that our opponent has decided to run a play, passing the ball to 4 before sending the ball to 5.  Our response would be to bring 1′s defender into the paint to help defend 5.

That looks like this:

We could also bring 2 or 3′s defender down, but they have further to run, slowing our ability to get the extra defender into position in time.

At this point, 5 has a few reasonable options: He can pass back to 4 and reset the offense; he can pass to 1 who can try the open shot, drive the lane or reset; or he can try to force his way through the double team to the basket.

The best option would be to pass to 1 since it will take time for the defender to get back into position to guard 1.  That gives 1 time to shoot… if he’s able, which is not always true for average point guards.  He can also drive to the basket, which usually turns out to be the better option.

Running the same play on the opposite side of the basket with player 2 – usually your best shooter – is a better offensive play. The only option for defenses is to rotate their defenders over to help defend the easy outlet pass for three.

A number of teams in the Big Ten have tried to defend the Buckeyes in precisely this way – bringing a helper down to cover Sullinger in the paint while leaving a man open. This is ultimately what has gotten teams like Purdue in trouble.

There are two big problems that have caused this strategy to fail miserably:

  1. Sullinger has demonstrated a remarkable ability to pass out of the double team – an unusual trait for a big-man.
  2. Every single one of Ohio State’s guards is a good shooter that you have to worry about leaving open.

Purdue discovered the second point quickly as the Bucks shot 6-9 from beyond the arc in the first half with four different shooters getting in on the action.  While that many threes could be considered a live-by-the-three-die-by-the-three option, it clearly killed the Boilermakers early and completely forced them out of their gameplan.

So what did Bill Carmody do that was so different and ultimately so effective?  As a matter of fact, he did nothing drastically different from the basic strategy we just discussed.  What he did do was get much more creative about which player to bring the double team from.

When Ohio State entered the ball into the post, Northwestern would wait momentarily, allowing Sullinger to believe he faced a one-on-one in the paint.  Once he had committed to a course of action, the Wildcats would bring the man directly behind Sullinger to double team him.

This strategy worked remarkably well and took Sullinger out of the game early on. By choosing the player behind Sullinger, the Wildcats made it impossible for Jared to find the open man on the perimeter.

This strategy resulted in a season low 8 three point attempts by the Buckeyes, a full 10 shots under their average. They also made a season low 2 three pointers, 5 under their average.  Taking away a major part of the OSU offense and essentially eliminating 4 of the 5 players on the court was a big victory for Bill Carmody.

The Buckeyes did adjust to the strategy eventually, but it was tough for them to open up a lead against the suddenly confident Wildcats.  Of course, when they finally did, a critical mistake leading to a 7 point “possession”* allowed the Wildcats to close the gap and make it a game.

It will be interesting to see if any other teams attempt to adopt Carmody’s approach to the problem of defending Sullinger.  It has been apparent that the Buckeyes have been learning how to deal with different defensive looks by repetition.  Having seen a particular strategy once, it’s more difficult for that plan to work again in the future.

In the coming weeks, I’ll look closely at a number of other defenses the Buckeyes have encountered during the season.  We’ll also take a look at several of the offensive strategies Ohio State has employed to make life miserable for opposing coaches.

* I have seen the 7 point series called a “possession” by several people, including Matta.  This is actually a misnomer as a possession officially ends with either a turnover, a defensive rebound or a made basket.  If a foul is committed with a made basket, that counts towards that possession, but the subsequent play is a new possession by itself, not a continuation of the previous possession.  This is entirely a semantic point, but one that is important in the analysis of basketball statistics.