The Ohio State men’s basketball team stood at 14-5, 3-3 just eight days ago when coach Thad Matta decided to make a change to the starting lineup.
Since then, the Buckeyes are 3-0, including back-to-back wins against top-25 teams at home, the most recent an 80-56 shellacking of the No. 16 Maryland Terrapins on Thursday night.
Matta flipped senior center Amir Williams and sophomore forward Marc Loving in favor of redshirt-senior forward Anthony Lee and freshman forward Jae’Sean Tate, and the Buckeyes haven’t looked back.
Matta said the reason for the switch was more a matter of Tate’s improved play than a lack of contribution from Loving.
“We felt that going into the Northwestern game, we wanted to make a little bit of a change. I was kind of rewarding Jae’Sean just in terms of how he had played,” he said. “Marc had come off a really poor defensive performance against Iowa, and I wanted to see him be a little more active on the defensive end.”
Tate, who is averaging 13.3 points per game since earning his starting role, said after the win against Maryland that his place on the team has not been affected.
“Even when I wasn’t starting, coach brought me in his office before the season and told me my role. Just starting, it really didn’t change,” Tate said. “Of course the first game, it was a little bugs. But … every week we just continue to get better, and I’m comfortable.”
Tate followed up a career-high 20 points in a Sunday win over then-No. 23 Indiana with 16 points and eight rebounds against Maryland.
On the other end of the spectrum, Loving added 19 points in his third game off the bench this season, tying his career-high.
Loving said after the win that his role has not changed, either, and added that he never thought he struggled on offense, despite being pulled from the starting lineup.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say slump … There hasn’t been a slump,” Loving said. “But just being able to knock some shots down for my team, it helps open up the floor for everybody.”
In the middle of the change has been freshman guard D’Angelo Russell, who entered Thursday’s game second in the conference in points per game with 19.4.
Russell, who added 18 points to go along with 14 rebounds in the win against the Terrapins, said the pieces are starting to fall into place, and he attributed the early season struggles as the reason why the Buckeyes are now streaking.
“I credit the losses. I feel like the losses that we had at the beginning of the year make us who we are now,” Russell said. “And like I said I … feel like everybody brings what they’re supposed to do to the table, there’s no turning around, we just keeping going forward, keep getting better every day.”
Matta said the balance between Russell, Loving and Tate was the reason the Buckeyes were able to rattle off a third-straight victory.
“That was probably the difference in the game. Obviously Marc shooting 5-of-5 from three. He had great lift. He was set to shoot it tonight,” Matta said. “Jae’Sean’s activity, he’s got such great footwork and he gets it down there and he is finishing well. I thought all these guys played with some great energy tonight.”
Almost lost in the balanced scoring for the Buckeyes was the fact that they out-rebounded the Terrapins 51-32 for the game, an area which has not been OSU’s strong suit so far this season.
Russell, whose 14 rebounds tied a career high, joked he was the Buckeyes’ best in that area.
“Best rebounder on the team, I couldn’t re-word it … Nah, I’m just playing, the ball bounces to me a lot. I wouldn’t say I go get ‘em, they bounce to me a lot,” Russell said. “It’s just something I decided to take upon myself to rebound better as a 6-5 guard, I gotta do something down there.”
A big part in the discrepancy between the two teams on the boards was Williams, who pulled down eight rebounds in just 12 minutes of play after not taking off his warm up gear against Indiana.
Matta said he was pleased with how Williams performed in the paint in the win.
“Amir played like a man tonight. I thought he did a tremendous job,” Matta said. “I was very, very happy. He has been practicing well and he is different than Anthony in terms of kind of the protector around the rim.”
Matta added that he thought it was the best game the Buckeyes have played this season. Russell said he believes OSU is starting to get a full head of steam.
“Everybody brought something to the table,” Russell said. “I feel like we’re going through our stride, playing the best basketball we’ve played all year. And no stopping now.”
The Buckeyes are set to return to the hardwood Wednesday against the Purdue Boilermakers in West Lafayette, Ind. Tip is set for 6:30 p.m.