The Buckeyes out of conference gauntlet is complete, and attention now turns to the equally grueling Big Ten slate. Ohio State is riding a four game win streak and is still flying high after knocking off then-number 4 Kentucky in Brooklyn, and hopes of a respectable season that were dashed just a few weeks ago are now finding new life.
Conference play opens as the Buckeyes host the Minnesota Golden Gophers (who are no doubt looking for refuge from the frigid Minnesota December on the
sunny warm shores of the Olentangy). Minnesota has, thus far been.... not great. They're currently sitting at 151st in KenPom's rankings after posting a 6-6 pre-season record. The fan base is not just concerned, they're already looking ahead to next season. As our sister blog, The Daily Gopher, reported:
I've heard from multiple places that there is a growing irritability coming from Coach Pitino. Irritable with his players for not doing what he's asking them to do and that is translating to irritability with media when he's asked questions about why his team is struggling so much. Maybe the onus is not all on the players in this case. There is time to correct some things but maybe it starts with methods of teaching, maybe it starts with coaching at this point.
While Ohio State is peaking, Minnesota is imploding, but the Big Ten has a habit of toying with team's fates. The Buckeyes redemption campaign can continue with a conference opener win over Minnesota.
Numbers to know
That's where Ohio State sits in KenPom's ranking after beating Kentucky and finishing up a brutal out-of-conference schedule at 8-5. Not too shabby, considering all the bad losses Ohio State posted and they've only dropped 9 spots since their opening ranking of 42. Ohio State's RPI and Strength of Schedule rankings are rising too, into the top 90 in each. There's a ways to go, but a few more good wins will go a long way to boosting that ranking.
The number of Buckeyes averaging double-digit points per game this season so far is 3, but JaQuan Lyle is knocking on the door at 9.2, a rounding error away from joining that club. The Buckeyes have long been criticized as lacking multiple scorers, and its a refreshing look to have multiple people who can score in handfuls. As the lineup settles down and Lyle gets his offensive game squared away, I expect a well-balanced scoring attack, with no one player needed to carry the water each and every game.
Minnesota's Jordan Murphy has posted 5 double-doubles in the last 6 games, putting up double-digit points and rebounds in each game. Murphy is powerful around the rim, dunking, rebounding and generally controlling things down low. It will be on Daniel Giddens and David Bell to repel Murphy's attacks. Both Keita Bates-Diop and Jae'Sean Tate have been rebounding machines, so look for them to keep Murphy's rebounding in check.
Cast of characters
Marc Loving was on a nice little run of good scoring games before going ice cold against Mercer and S. Carolina State, scoring 4 and 6 points, respectively. Other players have picked up Loving's slack, but this young team would be a lot more reliable if Loving could consistently get his numbers. Worse yet, as Loving's scoring has dropped, so has his rebounding - its as if Loving needs to be scoring to stay involved and active in the game. With two seasons under his belt, perhaps Loving can return to form against a more familiar opponent.
While Loving slumps, A.J. Harris could be surging. He had limited effectiveness against Mercer, where he only played 9 minutes, but with 17 minutes against South Carolina State, Harris scored 5 points, notched 6 assists and grabbed 3 rebounds, an impressive stat line given that he played less than half the game. Harris's true value needs to be seen on the court though - he's got a motor and a speed that's reminiscent of (dare I say it!) Aaron Craft, in the way that he darts up the court with the ball when he's running the Buckeye offense. Harris is like a firecracker, just light the fuse, stand back and see what happens.
Minnesota's leading scorer is Joey King, who's averaging over 31 minutes a game and scoring almost 14 points per outing. King's really dangerous from the free throw line, where he's 90%, but he's equally deadly from behind the arc (44%) and around the rim (averaging over 3 rebounds per game). At 6-9, 235 lbs, King is a physical force as well, particularly from the 4-spot, and he's a true senior, giving him the advantage of experience against this young squad. The Buckeye youngbloods will need to find a way to stop old man King.
Right behind King in scoring is Mason, who's playing big minutes at guard and averaging over 12 points and 4 assists per game. Mason isn't as potent a scorer, hovering around 30% from 3-point range and 40% from field goal range, but he's nearly as deadly as King from the charity stripe, averaging over 80% in his free throws. Mason is less dominating physically as well, standing just 6-1 and a slight 185, but he's been able to use his stature to great effect so far. Milwaukee held Mason to just 6 points, and Ohio State needs to keep him under control as well.
How to watch
Game time: 7 p.m. ET
Radio: 97.1 FM