The Ohio State Buckeyes are at a bit of a crossroads for their season. Things have been very promising along the way, to be sure - the tough loss at Duke was difficult to swallow, but showed this team had grit and fortitude to go into the nation's best home court advantage and strike the fear of God into the Blue Devils. Beating Michigan at home a week after being outmatched at Illinois showed perseverance, and a never-say-die attitude that was, to that point, lacking for this team. Even the Northwestern game last week, a game that Ohio State probably should have lost, showed us how Deshaun Thomas and company can react in a late game, losing situation against inferior talent - the kind of thing so many teams see in March.
Plenty of positives, sure. But plenty of negatives outweighing them. These Buckeyes are 1-7 against ranked teams, including the aforementioned Duke game, as well as tough losses to some of the countries other very good squads. They have stocked up on wins against inferior teams all year, winning only at home against ranked Michigan, before giving that win back to the Wolverines. These Buckeyes are a question mark in a number of ways, and really have been all season.
A trait they certainly share with tonight's opponent, the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
This is the first and only meeting between Thad Matta's and Tubby Smith's squads this year, and both teams enter The Schott (7:00pm, BTN) with very similar bonafides. Both teams lost to Duke early in the season, both teams rebounded famously after those losses. Both teams have what can now be called surprising Big Ten home wins, Ohio State over Michigan and Minnesota over Michigan State. Both teams enter with identical 13-2 home records and 3-5 road records and are coming off of 20+ point road losses.
Put simply, tonight's matchup features two very similar teams trying to reassert themselves on the top tier of the Big Ten Conference. But both these teams will still have plenty of question marks on their resumes through the balance of the season, whether its a Buckeye win or a Gopher victory. What separates these teams, however, is likely going to go a long way in determining who will be victorious at the end of the night.
Minnesota, unlike the Ohio State team they'll face tonight, doesn't rely on a do-everything superstar the way the Buckeyes rely on the likes of Thomas. They spread the wealth - three Golden Gophers average double digit scoring in Andre Hollins (13.7 ppg) Rodney Willians (11.4 ppg) and Austin Hollins (11.3 ppg). The three top scorers also do it by spending more time on the court for Tubby Smith than anyone else on the team, all three averaging better than 28 minutes per game.
To say that the Buckeyes can't double down on playing one A. Hollins tight on defense is certainly accurate - if one of them doesn't get you, the other still could. Of the two Hollinses, Andre, the former Mr. Basketball of Tennessee, is the man to watch, especially after owning Wisconsin in an overtime win last week, scoring seven of 21 points in the extra session. But given the way Austin Hollins and Williams have played for Minnesota this year, the Buckeyes can't afford to lose sight of any of these three.
The other key player for the Gophers is a name that should be familiar to Buckeye fans, and not just because he's been playing college ball since the Carter Administration. Trevor Mbakwe, playing in his sixth collegiate season after transferring and missing parts of seasons due to injury, is still a force at forward for the Gophers. And he has been a pest to the Buckeyes before, too. He didn't play last year, but against then #2 Ohio State in January 2011, Mbakwe had a double-double (16 pts, 12 reb) in a close, three point loss in Columbus. His numbers this year aren't as strong as in his redshirt junior* season of 2010-2011, but he's still a big, gritty forward with experience turning it on in Columbus.
* At least I think that was his redshirt junior season. Seriously, given his transfer and injuries and all, I think Trevor must have his PhD by now.
One thing that may tip the balance of the game into Ohio State's favor, however, is how Minnesota, who started the year 15-1, has been playing of late on the defensive side of the ball. Or not playing at all, as the case may be. At the beginning of the year, the Gophers played the equivalent of "lights out" defense, keeping every opponent but two (loss vs. Duke, win vs. Memphis) below 70 points. From game 17, however, three losses have seen opponents get over 70 points - Indiana, Michigan at their last game against Iowa. If the Buckeyes can get to 65-70 points against the Gophers, they should be in good shape.
Similarly, what was once a team with stellar perimeter defense (games 1-16), the Gophers have turned around and are allowing teams to shoot better than 40% from the arc over over their last eight games. Are teams just shooting better than they were at the beginning of the year? Maybe. But playing defense is exhausting, and if the Ohio State can get open looks with Thomas and Lenzelle Smith, Jr., both of whom average just under 40% from the arc, there are points to be had there.
Both teams come into the game with something to prove. Is Ohio State worthy of being ranked at all, let alone be considered in the top echelon of the best conference in the country? A home win against a decent Minnesota team won't answer that question, but might give enough confidence to the Buckeyes as they prepare to face a tenuous stretch of the season that includes a home matchup Michigan State, as well as road tests at Northwestern (never, ever easy) and at Indiana, who could probably give the Charlotte Bobcats a run for their money this year.
Minnesota has been trying, mostly in vain, to prove that the first half of their season wasn't a fluke. Besides the 20-point drubbing at Iowa, the Gophers have certainly been competitive in every one of their last eight games, and winning in Columbus against a ranked Buckeye outfit will likely do wonders for their resume in March. A return to early season form tonight could be quite the catalyst for a relatively easy finish heading into the Big Ten Tournament for Minnesota.
Holy War. Ohio State needs this win just a little more than the Gophers, but pressure has not been something that has aided the Buckeyes this season. Perhaps more importantly, Ohio State has passed every un-ranked test over the course of this season. If they can hold the Hollinses in check and control the game on the perimeter, they should win this game. But it's a big "if" for a team lacking in confidence. Still, Thomas on offense and Aaron Craft on defense should be enough for the Buckeyes to get a victory at home, 66-59.