Jordan Sibert worked on mastering his defense and knocking down open shots from long range during his rigorous offseason workout regimen. It was mastering those things, he thought, that would put him in position for Ohio State head coach Thad Matta to have no choice but to include him in his often-tight rotation.
Lenzelle Smith Jr., of course, agreed on the defensive part. But unlike Sibert, who has worked to become a clutch shooter from beyond the arc, Smith focused on making rebounding the basketball his niche.
Both sophomores, Smith and Sibert spent months hoping they’d find themselves as Ohio State’s top option at shooting guard, the position viewed by most to be the primary spot up for grabs heading into the season.
The one common goal – playing prolific defense – is what could have both in major roles in their second season at Ohio State.
Against Jackson State tonight at 9 p.m. in Value City Arena, the emergence of both will continue.
“They’re not competing against each other,” Matta said. “We’re still so early, there’s so many things we can do and we want to see done with this basketball team. That’s kind of the beauty of those two. They’re different players, and depending on what we may need or how we may need it done could dictate minutes for them.”
In Ohio State’s season-opening victory over Wright State, it was Smith who found himself in the starting lineup at shooting guard after earning that spot in the team’s Nov. 6 exhibition win over Walsh. Smith stayed in the starting lineup in the Buckeyes' 81-74 win over Florida Nov. 15, where he played 26 minutes.
Smith, who stands 6-4 and weighs 205 pounds, tore a ligament in his wrist early during his freshman season a year ago. By the time he was ready to practice again, Matta’s impenetrable rotation filled with veterans was set.
This year, Smith plans on making that rotation.
“As you know, Coach Matta likes defensive stoppers,” he said. “So for me, I see that in order to play for this university, I will have to be a defender, a lockdown stopper, someone like a (former Buckeye) Dave Lighty. Someone you can call that can guard any position no matter what.”
Scoring eight points in 20 minutes of action in the 73-42 win over the Raiders in his first career regular-season start, Smith’s seven rebounds – and eight against Walsh – are what Matta pointed to after the game as the reason he likes Smith in the starting lineup.
“I don’t think (Jon) Diebler had eight (rebounds) in his career,” Matta joked. “(Smith) is long, he is athletic and he goes and gets the ball. I think from that position, it is obviously a bonus that he can rebound the basketball.”
Of course, Diebler’s rebounding won’t be what he is remembered for. Instead, Matta has to find a way to replace his productivity from beyond the arc after Diebler was the Big Ten’s most prolific three-point shooter a year ago, connecting on more than half of his attempts from long range.
“My role is to primarily take and make open shots, make good decisions when I’m on the floor,” Sibert said, “but most importantly, being a great team defender.
“A lot of people are great individual defenders, but just like Dave was last year, Dave would check almost four players in one possession and that’s the type of player he was. That’s just the type of player he was. (I have to) take that kind of role and just be the best team defender I can. Last year I followed behind Jon and studied his game and took great tips from him.”
Matta has said countless times that players won’t get onto the floor without being able to play defense, so Sibert was on track in making sure his skills on that end of the floor were in line before entering preseason camp.
But Matta is in desperate need of a player who can come in and relieve some of the pressure from Ohio State’s primary scorers from beyond the arc.
Sibert is confident he is the man for the job.
In the exhibition win over Walsh, Sibert knocked down 4 of 5 attempts from long range. When asked about it days later, the sophomore wasn’t surprised in his productivity in that facet of the game. Against the Gators, Sibert knocked down 1-of-2 shot attempts from beyond the arc but played sparingly.
“Honestly, it helped but it didn’t do too much for me because that confidence was instilled in me throughout the spring and summer from my teammates and coaches,” Sibert said. “By me being able to go out there and do that, it doesn’t really surprise me. It was what I worked hard on day in and day out since the Kentucky game last year.
“In the springtime, we all had individual workouts and I would shoot 400 or 500 shots throughout the workout. Then I came back at night and shot 500 more. Whenever I got a chance to shoot, I’d shoot, whether it was after lifting or early in the morning.”
Sibert took a backseat to Smith against Wright State but still played 14 minutes. However, he wasn’t as productive as he would have hoped, missing both attempts from beyond the arc and scoring only one point.
But the season is still young for the sophomores, and Matta stressed that the evaluation process would extend well into November and December.
As far as who holds down the starting spot heading into the future, it may not even come down to the best player.
“As we’ve told them, individual play is obviously important,” Matta said, “but collectively, what’s that group on the floor doing and how do they look and do they mesh together? I’ll be honest, I haven’t always put the five best players on the floor, but I always put the five best who play together.”
Smith feels both he and Sibert can help fill the void left by the departures of Diebler and Lighty.
“I think this program lost a lot of toughness losing the three seniors we lost last year,” Smith said. “I think it’s our job as new guys to keep it going and bring it back. I feel what it takes to win is to be tough, grab rebounds, guard the other team’s best player, stuff like that.”
Though both said the feeling of being included in Matta’s plans this season has been a breath of fresh air given neither played a ton of minutes in their freshman seasons, Sibert said winning is the top concern.
“Lenzelle is a competitor,” said the 6-4, 185-pounder. “Every day since we had our first practice it has been competition. It is great. It isn’t only making me better, but it is making him better and the team better.
“It is not just an individual thing. There is playing time at stake, but as long as we are focused on winning, playing time isn’t really that important.”
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