After starting the first week of conference play 1-1 following a 77-61 victory over Illinois on Saturday, Ohio State hits the road for a pair of tough matchups this week against Minnesota and Indiana.
The Buckeyes got back to form shooting the ball against the Illini, knocking down 60 percent of their shots from the field, and seemed to get a jolt of energy from a second half switch to man-to-man defense. Behind a shorter rotation, Thad Matta's squad outscored Illinois 41-24 after halftime.
"I thought all the guys did a really nice job and were great down the stretch for us," Matta said after the game. "I think our activity was great and we were able to get out and get deflections. We got the ball out in transition, and we did a really nice job rebounding the ball tonight. Then we were able to execute offensively."
Paced by freshman phenom D'Angelo Russell's 22 points and a very active 13-point, 8 rebound effort from sophomore Marc Loving, Ohio State overcame a sloppy first half to cruise to their first Big Ten win of the season, avoiding an 0-2 start that would have sent most hopes for contending in the conference out the window.
"We knew it was a must win game," senior Sam Thompson said. "Anytime you're at home, and anytime you're at home in a conference game, you must win it. You have to win at home, it's so important to win on your home court, because every time you go out on the road it's a battle."
The Buckeyes will be taking that battle to Minneapolis on Tuesday night for a matchup with the Gophers in the Barn. Head coach Richard Pitino's team is winless in the Big Ten after dropping road games to Purdue and Maryland, and is looking forward to a little home cooking.
"We knew these first two games would be very difficult," he said after Saturday's game in College Park. "We're excited to go back home. We need to go home and get some confidence back."
Minnesota averages over 80 points per game and features a very balanced attack. Six players average 9.4 points or better, and four of those are in double-figures.
"They have a lot of different guys who can get it going at different parts of the game," Matta said on Monday. "Our defense has to be at a high level."
A key matchup for Ohio State will be at the point guard position, where seniors Shannon Scott and DeAndre Mathieu have proven to be among the Big Ten's best. Scott leads the conference with 7.4 assists per game, followed closely behind by Mathieu at 5.9. Both sit tied atop the conference leaders with 2.5 steals per game.
"We have not won a game on the road this year," Scott said Monday. "We know it is going to be tough for us."
Here's what to look for Tuesday night in the Barn.
Numbers To Know
Minnesota is third in the country in assists per game, at 18.9 per game. While Mathieu is the maestro of the offense, this is an unselfish club that shares the ball, with four other players averaging at least 2.5 dimes. After Ohio State's zone defense was largely picked apart by Iowa and Illinois, teams not nearly as adept in their passing, it seems the switch to a man-to-man look comes at a good time.
The Buckeyes have yet to beat a team in the top 50 of the KenPom rankings this season, losing to Louisville, North Carolina, and the Hawkeyes. The Gophers currently sit at 36th. Not only would a win Tuesday night be Ohio State's mathematical best of the year, it would be its first on the road.
After a rough game shooting the ball in the Iowa loss, Russell bounced back with a solid 22 points on 7-13 shooting (3-7 from three-point range) against the Illini. At 17.7 points per game, Russell is among the best scorers in the conference and among freshmen across the country. The Buckeyes will need him to improve on the 10-37 shooting numbers he has put up in the only two games of his career played away from Columbus to date.
Cast of Characters
The Buckeyes' big man is struggling through the first two games of Big Ten play, after going scoreless and grabbing just one rebound in 12 minutes against Illinois. After two conference games, Williams is averaging a meager 4.5 points and 3 boards. Ohio State needs more production and consistency from the 6'11 Detroit native if it hopes to make any noise throughout the rest of the season, and that begins on Tuesday. Minnesota's Maurice Walker is a load down low, averaging 12.5 points and 5.9 rebounds per game, and Williams will be counted on to slow him down.
Since the debacle against Louisville where Scott found himself on the bench during crunchtime, Ohio State's leader has been steady. While the former McDonald's All-American is still struggling to find consistency in his perimeter shot, he is orchestrating the offense and being disruptive against opposing ballhandlers. Watching Scott and Mathieu do battle should be one of the more interesting matchups in Minneapolis.
A junior newcomer who transferred from Chipola College in Florida, Morris has stepped up and filled the production Minnesota lost when Austin Hollins graduated a year ago. The 6'5 wing leads the Gophers in scoring at 13.1 per game, including 18 in Saturday's loss to the Terps, and also contributes 3.9 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 2.1 steals.
Hollins, who at times in his career has shown flashes of being a breakout player, is struggling of late. Through the first two Big Ten games, the senior from Memphis has tallied just 9 points, shooting 3-19 from the floor and just 1-9 from long range.
"He played two bad games offensively, but I don't think he's dealing with a lot," Pitino said Saturday. "I don't see the weight of the world on his shoulders. I don't feel like he's frustrated."
In four career games against Ohio State, Hollins has put up 10.5 points on just under 45 percent shooting, but all but one of those matchups ended in defeat for the Gophers. For Minnesota to be a factor in the Big Ten and go dancing in March, Hollins simply must play better.
How to Watch/Stream
TV: 9 p.m. ET, ESPN
Radio: 97.1 The Fan