The Ohio State Buckeyes men’s basketball team has come out strong early in Chris Holtmann’s first season as head coach, moving to 4-0 on the nascent season. Now, however, the squad faces its first real test of the season as they matchup with the 3-0 Gonzaga Bulldogs in the PK80 Invitational in Portland, Ore.. It will also be Ohio State’s first “road game,” with the tournament taking place just a few hours from the Bulldogs’ home in Spokane.
The Buckeyes and Zags will be facing off in the last game of the first day of the tournament, which is being held in honor of Nike founder Phil Knight’s 80th birthday. It’s a star-studded field, which includes top-ranked Duke, No. 4 Michigan State, No. 7 Florida and No. 9 North Carolina. Butler, Holtmann’s former squad, is also playing in the 16-team tournament. And all teams have sick alternative uniforms (it is a Nike tournament, after all) for the event.
Heading into the tournament, the Buckeyes have won their first four games by an average of 21 points, with scoring led by junior forward Keita Bates-Diop, who has had double-doubles in three of four games this year. Most recently, Ohio State routed Northeastern 80-55 in Columbus, with senior forward Jae’Sean Tate leading the way with a career-high 24 points on the night without missing a shot.
The Zags, meanwhile, lost a lot from last season’s team that made it to the finals of the NCAA Tournament, including their three leading scorers. But head coach Mark Few, in his 19th season in Spokane, has rebuilt a quality squad that is expected to be one of the best teams in the country this season. Few can be credited with putting Gonzaga on the map as a relevant basketball power, amassing a 506-119 overall record with the Bulldogs.
Despite the losses on their roster, Gonzaga has had a strong start to the season. The Zags opened their season against Texas Southern, one of Ohio State’s recent opponents, with a 97-69 win. The Bulldogs followed up with a 37-point victory versus Howard before a much tighter 13-point win over Utah State. Senior forward Jonathan Williams, who has started 109-straight games, went over 1,000 career points this season against Howard. Six players are averaging double-digit scoring this season, and the Bulldogs are collectively shooting nearly 40 percent from three-point range. On the defensive side, the Zags have held 59-straight opponents under 50 percent shooting from the field.
Ohio State has only faced off once against Gonzaga, earning a 73-66 win in the 2012 NCAA Tournament. The Bulldogs are 12-19 against schools from the Big Ten, with their most recent victory coming against Northwestern in last year’s NCAA Tournament. The Zags, who have won their conference for the last five years, came in at No. 2 in the West Coast Conference preseason poll behind Saint Mary’s.
Numbers to know
Okay, this is kind of depressing. Ohio State is really bad shooting from outside the arc--like 305th in the country, shooting under 30 percent from three-point range bad. So far, it hasn’t been a problem as the Buckeyes, again, are averaging double-digit wins against inferior competition. However, those kinds of dominant wins will not come as easily as Ohio State moves into the meat of its schedule and, sooner than you might think, into conference play. They will need to rely on shooters like Kam Williams who have shown strong three-point shooting ability in the past to carry the load from long range.
The Buckeyes’ offensive rebounding percentage. Led by Bates-Diop, who has pulled down 11 offensive rebounds on the season, Ohio State is 38th in the nation in the category. Yes, this stat comes against generally inferior competition, but the Buckeyes have collectively shown a lot of hustle when it comes to collecting rebounds.
Gonzaga’s assist to turnover ratio, which is good for 10th in the NCAA. Ohio State’s ratio of 1.09 comes in tied for 144th in the nation. While a lot of areas have improved under Holtmann, the Buckeyes need to do a better job of protecting the ball and avoiding turnovers. The squad is currently giving up the ball 13 times each game--something they have managed to get away with against inferior competition, but which will be easily exploited against strong teams like the Zags.
Cast of characters
The redshirt junior has averaged 19.3 points and 10 rebounds per game, both team highs, and has earned a double-double in all but his last outing versus Northeastern. Shooting 57 percent from the floor, Bates-Diop is the only player for Ohio State who has garnered a decent shooting average from long range, hitting 45 percent of his three-point attempts. After missing much of last season due to injury, Bates-Diop has been a critical body on the floor, providing much-needed energy and scoring for Holtmann’s refurbished squad.
Last season’s scoring leader had a strong outing Sunday against Northeastern, scoring a career high 24 points after hitting all 10 of his shots from the field in 26 minutes of play. The senior forward was responsible for 11 of the Buckeyes’ first 13 points, springing Ohio State to an early lead that they would not relinquish. Tate has gotten stronger throughout this early season stretch. After scoring just seven points in the Buckeyes’ season opener, the point guard has averaged double-digit scoring since. He will need to continue to increase his scoring potential as Ohio State moves into this tough early-season stretch.
The 6-foot-10 forward from France has been playing an expanded role in his second season with the Zags after the squad lost four players from last year’s NCAA runner-up team. The sophomore led the Zags in scoring with 20 points in their last outing versus Utah State, and is averaging more than 25 minutes per game this season. He is also bringing just under 70 percent field goal shooting to the floor and could be one of the top big men in the country this season.
The forward from Washington state has made a splash in his freshman season with Gonzaga. Despite being a freshman, the 6-foot-6 center is a sturdy 215 pounds and has the frame of an older player. That build--and Kispert’s obvious skill--may be what contributed to the former prep standout becoming the first freshman to start a season opener for Gonzaga since 2009. He is averaging just under 12 points per game, and is shooting above 40 percent from beyond the arc.
How to watch
Game time: Midnight ET, Nov. 24
Radio: 97.1 WBNS-FM