The up and down season of the Ohio State basketball team continued on Wednesday night with a hard-fought 78-72 victory over Minnesota at Value City Arena in Columbus. After losing their first four games to open the Big Ten schedule, the Buckeyes have now won three of four, and at 3-5 sit in a logjam of six teams tied in the standings.
With 11 games remaining in the regular season, there promises to be a great deal of flux in the conference, and Ohio State has an opportunity to turn its whole year around. The question is which Buckeye team will show up on a night-in, night-out basis.
“Every day is day one,” head coach Thad Matta said after beating the Gophers. “I think when we’re in the position we’re in, we have to think that there’s a lot of basketball to still be played. The second that we feel like we have this figured out is not good for our team.”
One player who certainly seems to have figured things out is junior center Trevor Thompson. The man Minnesota head coach Richard Pitino called “one of the most improved players in the conference” scored a career-high 19 points and pulled down 10 rebounds, good for his seventh double-double of the season.
Thompson, who returned to Columbus after testing the NBA draft waters last spring, has seen an uptick in both scoring and rebounding in Big Ten play. He’s contributing 11.6 points per game during the conference schedule, and his 9.6 boards a night trail only Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan and Northwestern’s Derek Pardon.
Despite his performance, though, Thompson knows the Buckeyes still have an uphill climb if they hope to hold onto their exceedingly slim NCAA tournament prospects.
''We can't relax, we can't feel good,'' he said on Wednesday night. ''We can't take this win and think that we're there because we're not by any shape or form. We just got to continue to chip away.''
That slow, steady chipping away is perhaps the identity this Ohio State team needs. The squad’s wildly inconsistent performance this season has at times had fans wondering about the direction of the program, and Thompson’s blue collar, hard hat mentality seems a good fit for a roster that lacks one true star player.
The rest of the season will be a test of the Buckeyes’ will, and that begins anew on Saturday night in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes have the same 3-5 conference record, and much like Ohio State, have lacked consistency.
Fran McCaffery’s squad is only a game over .500 for the year at 11-10, but at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, they have tough to beat, going 10-3. It will be a tough game for the Buckeyes to win, but should also give those who follow the program an indication of how realistic it is to hold any optimism for the team down the season’s stretch.
Numbers to know
For the season, Iowa ranks 46th in the country in scoring at 80.4 points per game, but that number is not indicative of the team’s attack since conference play began. The Hawkeyes have seen their scoring average drop to 73.5 points a night in the Big Ten, seeing their shooting and three-point percentages suffer.
Ohio State’s defense has endured a similar downward trend in conference play, as opponents are knocking down shots at a higher clip and scoring seven more points per game. For a team that sometimes struggle to put the ball in the bucket, that’s a recipe for defeat.
During his tenure at Ohio State, Matta is 13-7 against Iowa, and actually has a winning record at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, going 5-4 (.555). The last time the two teams met, the Buckeyes edged a Hawkeye squad ranked eighth in the country, 68-64, last February in Columbus.
Marc Loving, who is coming off a 19-point effort against Minnesota, scored 25 points in that upset victory last season, but has traditionally struggled against Iowa. In four other meetings during his career, he’s accumulated just 27 points (6.75 per game).
Of 14 teams in the Big Ten, Iowa ranks dead last in points allowed during conference play, yielding an average of 81.8 points per game. That mark, coupled with their decreased offensive efficiency, has led to an average -8.3 scoring margin per game for the Hawkeyes. Only Rutgers has a worse margin than that.
Names to know
Williams can light it up from the three-point arc with the best of them, but you’d never know that based on his performance in conference action. The redshirt junior has seen his three-point shooting percentage plummet to 27.6 percent (8-for-29) against Big Ten opponents. Iowa struggles defending the three-point line, ranking tenth in the conference with a 40.8 percent opponent percentage, and Ohio State’s chances for victory would get a big boost if Killa Kam can take advantage.
For a microcosm of Ohio State’s season, look no further than Lyle, who has shown tremendous playmaking ability, but too often given the coaching staff fits with his inability to take care of the ball. In the past three games, the sophomore has averaged just over 12 points and just under 4 assists, but he’s turned it over nearly five times a night. One facet of the game the Hawkeyes excel in is forcing steals, which they have done more than seven times a game during Big Ten play, good for fourth in the conference. Lyle’s scoring and playmaking are vital for the Buckeyes, but if the turnovers continue, he may well find himself watching from the bench.
For the season as a whole, Jok’s 21 points per game are the highest mark among players in the Big Ten. The athletic 6-foot-6 senior can score in a variety of ways, and has the potential to take a game over on his own. During conference play, his scoring has fallen to just north of 18 per night, and during Iowa’s current three-game losing streak, that number falls to just 9.3. As Jok goes, so do the Hawkeyes, which will make him the number one priority of the Buckeye defense.
Three of Iowa’s top four scorers this season are freshmen, and Cook leads the way at 11.9 points per game. The 6-foot-9 newcomer from St. Louis also hauls down more than five rebounds a contest, but has been held in check the past couple of games. In losses to Illinois and Maryland, Cook has scored just 13 points on 3-for-12 shooting, perhaps a sign of the freshman wall.
How to watch
Game time: 8:05 p.m. ET
Radio: 97.1 WBNS-FM
TV: ESPN2 (Dave Flemming and Dan Dakich)