For just the third time since the beginning of the 2009-10 season, Ohio State enters a contest on the heels of back-to-back losses. Looking to avoid the programs' first three-game losing streak in nearly five years, No. 11 Ohio State (15-2, 2-2) travels to Minnesota (13-4, 2-2). The meeting between the Buckeyes and Gophers is pivotal in the pursuit of a conference championship; a 2-3 conference mark for the loser would place them three games behind conference-leading Michigan State, a Spartan club which has already defeated both.
Just being in a losing streak for a Thad Matta-coached Buckeye team is unfamiliar territory, but how this Buckeye club has hit the skids is particularly atypical. After holding their first 15 opponents to less than 70 points, Michigan State scored 72 points to end Ohio State's perfect season. While the Spartans would benefit from the five-minute overtime period to put up the most points against the Buckeyes to date, Iowa would need no more than the regulation's 40 minutes to easily eclipse that with their 84 points. Looking to find their defensive prowess, Ohio State will face a Gopher lineup that features a balanced scoring attack and serviceable bench.
Three starting Gophers enter the contest averaging at least 10 points per game led by junior guard Andre Hollins at 16.3. Senior swingman Austin Hollins adds 12.1 points a game with 6.7 rebounds a contest. Junior DeAndre Mathieu leads Minnesota in averaging 4.35 assists a contest with 11.4 points. Senior Malik Smith provides coach Richard Pitino with a quality sixth man, averaging 10.1 points per game. Senior center Elliott Eliason is a clog in the middle, pulling down 8.6 rebounds a game.
Though Minnesota can find scoring from all positions, and possess seven players whose scoring ability must be respected, collectively Minnesota doesn't stand out on the offensive end. While the team does lead the Big Ten in free throw shooting at 75.5%, the Gophers' 43.3% shooting clip from the field is ninth in the conference, and their 35.1 three-point shooting sixth as they average 75.9 points a game.
However, Minnesota eeks past Ohio State in points as the Buckeyes average 75.1 a game on 46.8% shooting from the field, 34.1% from beyond the arc and 68.8% at the line. But to those that have watched the Buckeyes, their middle-of-the-pack offense is of no concern when they're playing their game. The stingy Ohio State defense has helped the team to a scoring margin of 17.5 points, second in the Big Ten, behind a conference-best 3.59 turnover margin.
But as Ohio State fell from the ranks of the unbeaten, taking care of the ball has been AWOL over the last two games. Against Michigan State the Buckeyes committed 21 turnovers, in Sunday's game against Iowa the Buckeyes committed 17. Protection of the ball will not be limited to turnovers against Minnesota, the Gophers are best in the Big Ten in thievery, averaging 8.2 steals a game.
If Ohio State does take care of the ball, there are points to be scored against the Maroon and Gold, Minnesota has allowed 67.1 points a game.
Ohio State will look for junior LaQuinton Ross to pick up where he left off against the Hawkeyes. After a woeful performance in East Lansing where a 1-for-7 shooting night produced five points, Ross found the stroke in a 22-point effort to bump his team leading average to 13.6 points.
Yet to step up for Matta is a consistent second option. Senior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. is second on the team at 12.2 points, but has scored only 20 points combined over his last three games.
Buckeye big man Amir Williams has provided Ohio State with a modest presence in the middle putting up 9.6 points a game with 6.7 rebounds and point guard Aaron Craft contributes 9.1 points as the team's primary ball-handler. But points may be secondary for both. If Williams can help Ohio State control the glass, neither Ohio State nor Minnesota hold a decisive rebounding edge on their opponents with positive margins of 2.4 and 3., it would limit easy offerings for a pedestrian shooting Gopher team. And it is upon Craft to improve on 10 turnovers over the last two games which has negated solid distributing efforts with assists in both.
On paper, the Buckeyes have the advantage when one views how dominant of a unit the defense is when they're on, even with the losses Ohio State still remained first in the Big Ten in scoring defense at 57.9, the Big Ten's lone sub-60-point defense. But Minnesota is talented enough to continue the Buckeyes slide if Ohio State does not take care of the ball and provides the host with transition opportunities and limits the opportunities their own so-so offense has. It should be a battle in The Barn as both teams know what a loss will do for their title aspirations.
Numbers to Know
The 80 wins Ohio State has against Minnesota are tied for the fourth-most against a Big Ten school.
After averaging 10.5 turnovers in their 15 wins, Ohio State average 19 in losses to Michigan State and Iowa.
Ohio State has not lost three consecutive games since Feb. 14-22, 2009.
Cast of Characters
Smith isn’t burdened with being a primary ball-handling, he doesn’t offer many assists nor turnovers, but he’s Minnesota’s sharpshooter, a 40% shooting on threes and lights out at the line knocking down 34 in 39 attempts.
At 6’8, 220 Osenieks’ frame measures best to stand up against Ross. The offense doesn’t go through Osenieks, averaging 6.8 points and 5.3 shots, but if he disrupts Ross’ game his contribution will be more than suffice.
In wins over Purdue and Nebraska Scott poured in a combined 31 points, averaging four assists. Scott has continued feeding his teammates with nine assists over the last two games, but hasn’t found the scoring touch for himself, averaging 5.5 points.
There may not be a more athletic player in the Big Ten. There may not be a more streaky player either. Matta’s first man off the bench can provide a spark, he scored a team-high 18 against Michigan State, or fail to integrate in the offense, six times has he scored less than five points.