Marilyn Indahl-USA TODAY Sports
Fresh off a big win against Wisconsin, Ohio State looks to keep pace in the Big Ten race when they head to Lincoln for their second helping of Nebrasketball. Will the second time be the charm for the Cornhuskers?
The Buckeyes are on the cusp on the top 10 of the polls, and one more Big Ten victory might be enough to get them there on Monday. To do that, they'll have to win their first league rematch of the season at Nebraska.
The Buckeyes and Cornhuskers kicked off Big Ten play together back on January 2nd, a game where Deshaun Thomas single handedly outscored Nebraska 18-17 in the first half, as the Buckeyes cruised to a 70-44 victory. Thomas finished with 22 points and 8 rebounds after sitting out most of the second half, while Lenzelle Smith Jr added 17. Ohio State held Nebraska to less than 31% shooting from the field, outrebounded them 41-29, had 10 more assists, and dominated them in nearly ever facet of the game. The only blight on the Buckeyes was their woeful free throw shooting (5-13). Guard Ray Gallegos led the Cornhuskers with 14 points, but needed 18 shots to get there. No other Cornhusker reached double digits.
After that game, many Buckeye fans cracked jokes about the woeful state of NebrasketBall, and wondered if the Cornhuskers would win a game in the rugged Big Ten. After their shellacking in Columbus though, Nebraska's season has picked up a little.
The Cornhuskers (11-11, 2-7) have actually won 2 conference games since their first meeting with Ohio State, a close victory at Penn State that was aided by some cosmically bad free throw shooting near the end, and a convincing 64-49 win against Northwestern. Nebraska has been competitive in games against several other stronger Big Ten teams as well. They only lost by 6 against Wisconsin, by 10 at Michigan State (and was tied at halftime), and by 9 against Purdue. While they still lack the talent and depth to hang with the Big Ten's elite, or even their middle class on a regular basis, they certainly possess the capability to make a good team sweat for a while.
In order to do that, Nebraska is going to need to be highly efficient on offense. Massive center Andre Almeida has struggled with injuries and hasn't been able to play major minutes for the Cornhuskers lately, leaving Nebraska with 6-10 Brandon Ubel and not much else in the rebounding department. Ubel is one of Nebraska's few reliable scorers, but isn't somebody likely to throw down 20-13. He's hit double digits in scoring in all of the conference games he's played except for two, but Ohio State held him to 2-9 shooting and 6 points. Nebraska is likely going to be outrebounded again, probably badly, so getting baskets the first time will be critical for their chances of success.
Rey Gallegos and Dylan Talley remain Nebraska's other two offensive threats, at 13.5 and 13.0 ppg respectively. The guard duo was hounded into a combined 8-32 shoot performance against Ohio State, but both players have had excellent games since then. Gallegos dropped 30 in Minnesota in Nebraska's previous game, hitting 6 three pointers. Talley had 20 against Northwestern and and 16 against Illinois, and is one of Nebraska's strongest rebounders. Both players often need lots of field goal attempts to get their points though, although if they heat up, they could be dangerous.
The mismatch in the backcourt will probably be another key to the game. Aaron Craft was scoreless in the first meeting, but handed out 8 assists and generally made things miserable for Gallegos and Talley with his tenacious defensive presence. Expect the Buckeyes to focus on this matchup again, as Nebraska doesn't really have anybody else who can score if those two are struggling with turnovers or running their offense.
Given that this game is at home for Nebraska, and Ohio State has a huge road matchup with Michigan next and has struggled with focus at times, it is entirely likely that this game won't be nearly the blowout that the first game was. However, it is hard to find an area of the game that Nebraska has much of an advantage. The Cornhuskers remain near the bottom in most offensive categories, not just in the Big Ten, but nationally. They do not shoot a high field goal percentage, will struggle mightily to get rebounds, they aren't particularly deep, and unless Gallegos heats up from three, they lack an explosive offensive player.
Look for Nebraska to come out strong earlier and shoot a better percentage early in the game, before Ohio State's backcourt defensive ability ability and size advantages overwhelms Nebraska in the second half and Matta empties the bench.
After this game, Ohio State is done playing Nebraska, Penn State and Purdue. Outside of their two games with the Northwestern Wildcats, every other game this season will be against a projected NCAA team. This may be their last chance to experiment with rotations or give players like Del Valle or Trey McDonald minutes. Hopefully player like LaQuinton Ross and Amir Williams take advantage of the chance to get comfortable, as the Buckeyes will surely need them in the tough games again.
Holy Diver. Let's take the Buckeyes, 74-59.