Ohio State basketball is undefeated in conference play, tied atop the Big Ten standings with Purdue. Now, the 22nd-ranked Buckeyes enter a four-game home stretch as they face Nebraska tonight at Value City Arena.
Chris Holtmann’s squad is now one of the hottest teams in the country. The Buckeyes are riding a seven-game win streak, with their most recent win coming against Minnesota, 67-49, on Saturday. Junior forward Keita Bates-Diop once again led Ohio State in scoring, recording 17 points and 12 rebounds on the day. With the win Saturday, the Buckeyes have already matched their win total from the 2016-17 season, and are sitting at 17-4 on the year.
Ohio State is now considered a contender for the Big Ten title this season--a thought that seemed unfathomable just a few months ago when Holtmann joined the program as head coach. While Purdue is the biggest obstacle in the way, Ohio State has a couple more weeks to prepare for their showdown in West Lafayette.
Nebraska, meanwhile, most recently completed a 20-point upset of No. 23 Michigan in Lincoln. With the win, the Huskers snapped a losing streak against the Wolverines that dated back to 1964. Overall, Nebraska is sitting at 14-7 on the season, including a 5-3 mark in conference play with losses to Michigan State, Purdue and Penn State. They are fourth in the Big Ten, and are starting to enter the discussion as a possible sleeper for a conference title in addition to their first NCAA Tournament bid since 2015. Ohio State is the last real test for the Huskers, who had a front-loaded conference schedule pitting them against Purdue, Michigan State and Michigan, each of whom Nebraska only faces once.
Tim Miles is in his sixth season at the helm of Nebraska, and has garnered an 89-93 overall record. This year looks to be Nebraska’s best since 2013-14, when the Huskers made the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
The Huskers lost a good portion of their offensive production from last season’s 12-19 squad, including two of their top three scorers. Junior point guard Glynn Watson Jr., one of two returning starters on the squad, has been a leader on Miles’ team.
The Buckeyes are 14-4 all-time against Nebraska, but lost their most recent meeting last year in Columbus, 58-57. Ohio State is 810-713 all-time against current members of the Big Ten.
Numbers to know
Despite being down 10 points to Minnesota in the first half Saturday, the Buckeyes did not panic or collapse. Instead, they went on a 24-2 run to take a lead that they would not relinquish the rest of the game. C.J. Jackson, Jae’Sean Tate, Kaleb Wesson and Keita Bates-Diop all contributed to the run, and it is worth considering that the Buckeyes did not need to rely on a single player to put them back in the game. On a larger scale, three of Ohio State’s four losses this season came through relative blowouts to Gonzaga, Clemson and North Carolina when the defense totally collapsed. While Minnesota has not lived up to expectations this season, it is still meaningful that, when down, Ohio State did not allow the Gophers to run away with the game early, and that good defense pulled them back into contention.
Ohio State is beginning a relatively comfortable stretch of its schedule, playing in a four-game homestand before going on the road to West Lafayette to face No. 3 Purdue. Nebraska is currently sitting in the No. 5 spot in the Big Ten, with Indiana--Ohio State’s next opponent after Nebraska--at No. 6. The Buckeyes are then scheduled to face a Penn State squad that is sitting at 3-5 in Big Ten play (ninth in-conference) before playing a currently-winless Illinois (last in-conference). For a team that was projected to finish 11th in conference play this season, the Buckeyes are doing pretty well for themselves, and it is starting to reflect in increasing attendance for home games. Already this season, the Schott is averaging attendance of 12,610 people per game, which is an increase from last year’s average from around the midway point of conference play.
Ohio State has steadily been climbing the kenpom rankings throughout this season and is currently sitting just outside the top-10. After opening as the No. 78 team in the country back in October, the Buckeyes have risen to become the third-best team in the Big Ten according to the rankings (Purdue and Michigan State are both in the top-five). While the Big Ten as a conference has been earning less and less respect in successive weeks, Ohio State in particular has countered the trend and has moved beyond consideration as a “bubble team” to a recognized NCAA Tournament candidate. In the latest bracketology, the Buckeyes are as high as a 5-seed, despite the Big Ten being projected to have just four teams make the tournament.
Cast of characters
Because duh. The junior forward has been the most visible and crucial part of the Buckeyes’ resurgence under Holtmann. While it was no surprise that Bates-Diop was a good player (he was a 2016 All-Big Ten honorable mention as a sophomore), what is more surprising is the way he has come back from missing most of last season due to injuries to become possibly the best player in the conference and, possibly, a first-round pick in the NBA Draft. Bates-Diop is averaging a best-in-conference 19.7 points per game--which is also good for 39th in the NCAA--along with 8.9 rebounds. He’s been an outstanding three-point shooter, connecting on nearly 40 percent of his attempts from behind the arc. On the other end of the court, he’s been a force on defense, leading his team in both blocks (1.8 per game) and steals (1.2 per game, tied with C.J. Jackson). Pretty good for a guy who didn’t make the preseason All-Big Ten team.
Bates-Diop has been receiving a lot of credit this season (deservedly so), but C.J. Jackson is not far behind in the impact that he has had on this Ohio State squad as he has emerged as one of the top point guards in the Big Ten. The junior point guard, a junior college transfer from Eastern Florida State, has made vast improvements this season after taking over the starting role for the departed JaQuan Lyle, and has become the team’s second-leading scorer behind Bates-Diop, averaging 13.1 points per game. And on a team where three-point shooting has come on strong as of late (prior to playing Minnesota, the Buckeyes were shooting upwards of 58 percent from range), Jackson is hitting on greater than 41 percent of his shots from behind the arc, third on the team behind senior guards Kam Williams and Andrew Dakich.
James Palmer, Jr.
The junior shooting guard from Maryland leads Nebraska in scoring on the season, averaging 15.8 points per outing, and is eighth in the conference in the same category. He has been the hero of the Huskers’ two-game winning streak, hitting the game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer versus Illinois and leading his team with 19 points to overcome a ranked Michigan squad last week. Palmer also performed admirably in Nebraska’s loss to Purdue earlier this month, scoring 22-points against the Boilermakers and, at times, showing up Purdue’s big men as he consistently drove to the basket and drew fouls. Still, Palmer has not proven a consistent threat from the field, connecting just 44 percent of shots from the field including 34 percent from behind the arc. It will be up to freshman forward Kaleb Wesson, who has seen more and more playing time as the season has wore on, to challenge Palmer down low while not getting into early foul trouble.
Glynn Watson, Jr.
The 6-foot point guard has been a crucial piece in Tim Miles’ lineup this season on both sides of the ball. Offensively, he boasts one of the best assist-to-turnover ratios in the Big Ten at 2.0, averaging 2.5 assists per outing. On the other end of the court, Watson is fourth in the conference in steals (yes, ahead of Bates-Diop) with 1.6 per game, and has accounted for 34 of Nebraska’s 139 takeaways on the season. However, while he can score from anywhere on the court, he doesn’t seem to do so with much consistency. Watson, a junior, is hitting just over 37 percent of his shots from the field, including 30 percent from three. He is scoring 11.7 points per game, good for third on the team.
How to watch
Game time: 8 p.m. EST
Radio: 97.1 WBNS-FM