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Jeff Eisenberg

Ohio State can't keep playing its starters 40 minutes ... can it?

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Even as Ohio State ascends the Big Ten standings in the wake of another huge win at Michigan State on Sunday afternoon, here's a reason to be wary of believing in the Buckeyes.

They have less depth than any other elite team in the country.

In closely contested matchups against fellow Big Ten contenders Michigan State and Purdue this week, four Ohio State starters logged all 40 minutes in both games and only one reserve even played at all. The rotation wasn't much deeper in a 19-point Buckeyes victory over Illinois the previous week, with three starters playing the first 38 minutes without a rest.

Whether Ohio State coach Thad Matta lacks trust in his bench or just has complete faith in a starting lineup as good as any in the Big Ten, the obvious concern is whether those five guys will eventually run out of gas. Especially in the Big Ten tournament, when the Buckeyes could have to play three games in three days, can the starters' legs withstand that pounding and still have anything left for NCAAs the following week?

"I don't think we're wearing down at all," guard David Lighty told the Cleveland Plain Dealer earlier in the week. "I think we're playing real good ball right now. That's not in our minds. We just go out there and play."

Although Matta has a history of relying heavily on his starters, you could argue that he doesn't have a lot of choice right now. Three transfers in three years and several other defections to the NBA draft have forced Matta to scramble to cobble together a bench, resulting in a roster with only 10 scholarship players including three junior college transfers.

The most perplexing decision Matta has made is to cut the playing time of backup guards Jeremie Simmons and P.J. Hill in Big Ten play. Both logged heavy minutes when Evan Turner was hurt earlier this season, but Simmons has averaged less than seven minutes a night in Ohio State's past 12 games and Hill either didn't play or logged a garbage-time minute or two in six of the past eight.

Can Ohio State sustain its success the next few weeks if Matta doesn't lighten the load on the starters? History suggests there should be diminishing returns, but they weren't evident late in Sunday's game.

When Michigan State rallied from 13 down to take a one-point lead with four minutes to go, the Ohio State starters responded with a run of their own to regain control. Sophomore William Buford drew a foul and hit two free throws to give his team a one-point lead and a flu-ridden Turner scored six of the team's final 11 points.

Turner had 16 of his 20 points in the second half and also finished with 10 rebounds and six assists.

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