published Thursday, March 25th, 2010

UT tests its bench strength


by Wes Rucker

KNOXVILLE -- There are two schools of thought for the best way to utilize a basketball bench, as evidenced by the Sweet Sixteen seasons of Tennessee and Ohio State.

The sixth-seeded Volunteers regularly use 10 players, while the second-seeded Buckeyes have recently settled on a seven-man rotation.

Ohio State used two reserves in each of its first two NCAA tournament games, and those players combined for seven points in 27 minutes.

UT used a five-man bench in the first round and a seven-man bench in the second, and those players combined for 43 points in 140 minutes.

No UT starter played more than 35 minutes in either opening weekend game. Five of Ohio State's 10 starters played a full 40 minutes, and another went 39 minutes.

  • photo
    Tennessee head coach Bruce Pearl instructs his team during the first half of an NCAA second-round college basketball game against Ohio in Providence, R.I., Saturday, March 20, 2010. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

Quantity or quality? Fresh legs or superior chemistry? More players you trust, or more players in whom you have total confidence?

Friday night in St. Louis will prove one theory correct.

"Ohio State only plays six or seven guys, but the guys they put on the floor are all really, really good," UT coach Bruce Pearl said. "And they've got chemistry, and they know how to win."

That chemistry at least partially stems from the Buckeyes' smaller rotation. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim also extols the benefits of this practice, and his Orange are still playing as the West Region's No. 1 seed.

"Oh, that definitely helps chemistry," Pearl said. "Guys know exactly over a period of time what they've got to do. They've all been put in more game-winning or game-losing situations. You don't have the unpredictability ... but at the same time, it can develop great chemistry with those guys on the floor."

Pearl said "most people" in the coaching business would probably agree that shortening your bench toward the end of the season is often the best route.

"Injuries are no longer a factor," Pearl said. "Fatigue is no longer really a factor."

Not when considering that UT has temporarily toned down the high-octane, fullcourt controlled chaos that symbolized Pearl's first few teams, it isn't.

"If we're the same Tennessee team we were two years ago, and we pressed for 40 minutes, our style of play would matchup much better with Ohio State," Pearl said. "Depth is not going to be a factor. Fatigue is not going to be a factor, as it relates to the style of play.

"And we're not going to suddenly start to press, just because that's a way you wear Ohio State down."

That's not to say the Vols plan to sit back and let the Buckeyes dictate tempo. UT still almost always looks for easy transition buckets before settling in and waiting for the tail end of the shot clock -- an "early or late" mantra Pearl has preached every day on the practice floor this season.

Don't be surprised if the Vols try smothering Ohio State All-American Evan Turner from baseline to baseline, either. Several teams that don't press have still kept constant pressure on the versatile 6-foot-7 star, hoping to frustrate him into fatigue or foul trouble.

"We love when we come up against a team like this, because we can wear them down and make them guard us all over the floor," UT sophomore guard Scotty Hopson said. "Hopefully that helps us out if it comes down to a close game at the end."

Maybe. But maybe not. Ohio State didn't look very tired in the Big Ten tournament championship game. The Buckeyes' third game in three days was a 90-61 victory over NCAA tournament-bound Minnesota.

Vols senior forward Wayne Chism watched Ohio State gash the Gophers that day and didn't see any issues with the Buckeyes' short bench.

"I don't think they have much of a depth problem," Chism said. "They keep hanging on in these close games, from what we've seen against their schedule. They only play like six guys, but they're six good guys.

"Whatever they're doing, obviously it's working. Those guys are playing some ball right now."

Pearl said getting the Buckeyes into foul trouble is more realistic than expecting to wear them out.

"You've got to do what your personnel is suited for, and in the past year and a half, our personnel hasn't been suited for pressing like it was when I got here," Pearl said. "We'll continue to do what our personnel dictates. We won't just exclusively recruit to the way we play. Yet and still, I think that pressure defense is a weapon. It's like being multiple. When we pressed well, we didn't always press everybody. We press the people that were effected. It would be nice to go into this game against Ohio State will fullcourt pressure as an option, because I think they're just so good in the halfcourt, and Turner (isn't) a true point guard.

"It's not like they've not seen press, but I'd like to have it in the arsenal. But it just doesn't suit us this year."

The Vols remain confident, though. Junior guard Josh Bone said he'd "take our 10 or 11 against anybody's seven or eight any day."

"Coach Pearl always stresses before every game that we have a team," added Bone, who recently worked his way back into the back end of the rotation. "Most teams do play six, seven or eight people, just to have them warm and keep them in a groove the whole game. But we have 10, so it's always our 10 versus their seven or eight. As many bodies as we can put on the floor, that's a lot of energy and everything on the floor on both ends. You don't get tired easily, because you have people behind you on the bench to come in for you and give the same energy.

"Having depth is a big part of why we're still in here."

But that's not why the Buckeyes are still in the tournament.

"Evan Turner is the best player in the country, maybe, so I think I might play him 39 minutes (per game) if I had him," Pearl said. "William Buford and David Lighty could probably play as much as they wanted, too.

"Ohio State has some players that are so good that most coaches wouldn't want to take them off the floor."

Other contacts for Wes Rucker are www.twitter.com/wesrucker and www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat.

about Wes Rucker...

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