When Thad Matta looked at his depth chart coming into the season, the paint was one place where experience was not a question. With returning seniors Amir Williams and Trey McDonald being joined by graduate student transfer Anthony Lee, big man was not a position the Buckeyes should have had any questions about.
Fast forward to the first week of January and the opening of Big Ten play, and the post is arguably the weakest link for Ohio State. Williams, the year in-year out enigma that has frustrated fans of the scarlet and grey and ESPN's Dan Dakich alike, has looked disinterested at best, and downright lost at worst for most of the season.
The former McDonald's All-American from Detroit is averaging just 8.4 points and 5.7 rebounds a game, despite playing inferior opponents throughout the majority of the non-conference schedule. Those numbers are nominally equal to his production from a year ago, and it seems the big man has reached his ceiling after a combined 9 points and 6 boards in the first two conference games.
McDonald, who is less skilled than Williams and undersized at just 6'8", is pure energy off the bench. Another native of Michigan, McDonald averages 4.2 points and 3.4 rebounds in under 12 minutes of action for the Buckeyes. This is the perfect contribution for a backup big, but falls short given the disappointing numbers of Williams.
Despite a non-conference schedule that featured the likes of UMass-Lowell, Campbell, and Morehead State, Ohio State is only out-rebounding opponents by about five per game, and was manhandled on the boards against Louisville, North Carolina, and Iowa. Particularly in keeping the opposition off the offensive glass, the Buckeyes have been vulnerable.
All of which brings us to Lee. When he transferred to Ohio State from Temple last spring, it was thought that Lee would bring would bring the kind of inside-out offensive threat not seen in Columbus since Jared Sullinger. After averaging 13.6 points and an AAC-leading 8.6 rebounds per game for the Owls, the Columbia, Maryland product has barely been seen, let alone made much of an impact on a team that has sorely needed production from its bigs.
To date, Lee is averaging 3.8 points and 2.7 rebounds in 11.5 minutes a game, and has been conspicuously absent from the rotation as youngsters like Jae'Sean Tate have gotten minutes down low. But after missing the non-conference finale against Wright State and playing just four minutes in the Big Ten opener against the Hawkeyes due to an ankle injury, the 6'9" Lee had arguably his best game in a Buckeye uniform in Saturday's 77-61 victory over Illinois.
In 16 minutes, which equalled the second-most he's played all season, Lee showed great energy, particularly when Ohio State switched to a man-to-man defensive look. He was crashing the boards, diving on the deck, and running the floor and finishing at the rim to the tune of 5 points, 3 rebounds, and a block.
While that stat line may not look that impressive, the intensity that Lee brought to the game was palpable for anyone watching. What's more, with Williams going scoreless, grabbing just one rebound, and basically running around out there like he didn't realize an actual game was taking place, Matta and his coaches must ask themselves what best serves the team.
When asked after the game if the team would be playing more man defense after the switch sparked a second half run that largely shut down the Illini, Ohio State's head coach said simply, ""Do we stick with it? Yeah. But I know we've got some zone we can play, as well, when we need it."
Given the energy and athleticism that Lee played with on Saturday and the largely ineffective play of Williams, the shifting scheme of Ohio State's defense as the real season of the Big Ten conference gets going may mean a change in personnel is in order.