The Ohio State Buckeyes men’s basketball team has had a tough run already in 2017. After a five-point loss to Illinois in Champaign on New Year’s Day, the Buckeyes came back home to face No. 20 Purdue in what turned out to be a heartbreaking, one-point defeat in the final seconds after a furious rally by the Buckeyes in the second half. To make matters worse, Thad Matta announced after the game that junior forward Keita Bates-Diop, who did not play against Purdue, was undergoing season-ending surgery on a stress fracture he has been struggling with since before the season.
Now, the Buckeyes goes on the road once again to face a far-better-than-expected Minnesota squad. The 14-2 Golden Gophers are currently sitting at 2-1 in conference play--a far better start than their 0-13 one last season. After losing their first Big Ten matchup to Michigan State, Minnesota rattled off road wins against then-No. 15 Purdue and Northwestern. With preseason predictions suggesting a 12th-place finish in the Big Ten, Ken Pomeroy projections now have the Gophers finishing third in the conference. The Buckeyes will face a tough matchup against Richard Pitino’s team, which has been resurgent on defense compared to last season and which shares the ball unselfishly on offense.
Ohio State is one of three winless teams in the Big Ten (Indiana and Rutgers are the others). This is the first time since the 2009-10 season that the Buckeyes have opened up conference play 0-2. Unfortunately for Ohio State, things do not get much easier from here. Three of Ohio State’s first four conference games are on the road this year. A win on the road against Minnesota would provide a lot of momentum as the Buckeyes prepare for yet another road test against 13th-ranked Wisconsin next week. The Badgers are currently sitting at 2-0 in conference play with road wins over Indiana and Purdue.
The loss of Bates-Diop looms incredibly large as Ohio State moves forward with a challenging conference schedule. Already two games in the hole, the Buckeyes will need to figure out how to operate without Bates-Diop on the court soon to have any hopes of making the NCAA Tournament.
Numbers to know
Under Thad Matta, Ohio State has reached at least 10 regular season wins in conference play for each of the last 11 years. That streak is the longest in program history, and currently leads the Big Ten. Matta himself is sitting tied with Wisconsin’s Bud Foster at the No. 13 spot in all-time regular season wins for the conference with 143 over his 12-year tenure as head coach. While Matta will likely break Foster’s mark for Big Ten wins at some point this season, the Buckeyes as a team have a long way to go to keep their conference win streak going through the remainder of this season.
The Buckeyes are one of the best teams in the country in defending field goals, holding opponents to a collective 38.6 percent on the season, good for 21st in the NCAA. Against Purdue, however, the Buckeyes allowed the Boilermakers to shoot just under 43 percent from the field--a testament to the Ohio State defense without KBD on the court. Combined with Bates-Diop’s blocking (second on the team behind Trevor Thompson, 1.3 per game) and rebounding (third on the team, 5.2 per game), the Buckeyes will need to find a way to maintain strong defensive performance without their star on the court.
Ohio State has been unable to overcome deficiencies from the free throw line throughout the season, and this year’s free throw shooting is even worse than last year’s already abysmal 68.4 percent average. They are hitting just over two-thirds of their attempts from the stripe, which places the Buckeyes at 225th nationally in the category. While the team cleaned things up against Purdue, hitting 17-of-20 attempts from the line, they missed when it counted down the stretch on a Trevor Thompson attempt that would have put the Buckeyes up one with 15 seconds left. This is an area that will need to continue to get better down the stretch as Ohio State faces more close games against conference opponents.
Cast of characters
The junior forward once again led the Buckeyes in scoring against Purdue Thursday with 17 points on the night. Unfortunately, He got into foul trouble early against the Boilermakers, recording three personal fouls in the first half and thereby limiting his effectiveness on defense for the remainder of the game. In the last six games, Tate has fouled out once and had four personal fouls on four occasions. Tate leads Ohio State in scoring on the season with 14.1 points per game, and is one of five Buckeyes averaging double figures this season. Especially with KBD out, Tate will need to be an even more consistent shooter moving forward.
The junior guard got his first starts of the season following Bates-Diop’s ankle injury against Providence, and he has provided a much-needed scoring outlet throughout the season, averaging 10.7 points per game and recording two, 10-point performances against Illinois and Purdue. He is also shooting 41 percent from behind the arc this season and has been the most consistent three-point shooter on the team. Still, he never provided the spark that Bates-Diop brought on the court in terms of his defense and his shooting ability. Now, with Bates-Diop out for the rest of the season, Williams, among others, will be expected to play an increased and more established role on the team.
Shooting nearly 43 percent from the arc, Mason is the Gophers’ most reliable three-point shooter and has been hailed by his coach as one of the best guards in the conference. The 6-foot-2 guard leads the Gophers in scoring and assists with 14.5 points and 5.9 assists per game. He scored a career high 31 points in Minnesota’s overtime road win against Purdue last week to go along with 11 rebounds and six assists on his way to being named Big Ten co-player of the week last week. An extremely unselfish player, Mason has recorded 87 assists on the season and has been a catalyst in opening up the Gophers’ offense.
The starting center is fourth in the country in blocks, averaging 3.4 per game, and has been credited with turning around a defense which was one of the worst teams nationally in points allowed per possession last season. The Illinois State transfer sat out last season due to NCAA transfer rules and was suspended from the team in the spring, but was reinstated prior to the start of the season and has been a starter for most of the year. Trevor Thompson has a slight height advantage over the 6-foot-10 Lynch, but Lynch will likely challenge Thompson’s strong shooting.
How to watch
Game time: 7:30 p.m. ET
Radio: 97.1 WBNS-FM