After a scare against the Bucknell Bison last week, the 15th-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes men’s basketball team bounced back with a 19-point victory over Youngstown State in Columbus Tuesday night. Now, after playing there earlier this month against Illinois, the Buckeyes return to the United Center in Chicago to take on the UCLA Bruins at 3 p.m. this afternoon in the CBS Sports Classic.
The Buckeyes are now sitting at 10-1 on the season and, after not being ranked in the AP Preseason Poll, have risen to No. 15 in the country. Crucial to this notoriety have been strong performances in the non-conference, including wins over Cincinnati and Creighton early on in the season. Those types of wins will bolster any tournament resume, and Ohio State has a chance to add one more with its matchup with UCLA today. Despite its struggles this season, UCLA has one of the most storied histories in college basketball, having won 11 national titles, including seven consecutive from 1967-1973. A win over the Bruins would be a cherry on top of a solid non-conference performance for the Buckeyes.
Most recently, Ohio State overcame a slow start to defeat the Youngstown State Penguins 75-56. At the half, the Buckeyes trailed by three, having shot just 24 percent from the field through the first. A second-half rally was certainly exciting, but also showed that some of the gaps Ohio State experienced against Bucknell might be more systemic issues.
Ohio State finished shooting greater than 46 percent from the field (yes, the Buckeyes shot 70 percent in the second half) but struggled from range, connecting on just 5-of-19 attempts. And after several strong performances from the bench, the seven-man bench had just 13 points against the Penguins. On a more positive note, Ohio State had 17 assists on the day and committed only eight turnovers--a big improvement over the 13 given up against Bucknell and 19 versus Illinois. Defensively, the Buckeyes held Youngstown State to 36 percent shooting on the night.
Overall, the Buckeyes are well-positioned heading into what is sure to be a tough conference schedule with a surprisingly complete lineup. Sophomore forward Kaleb Wesson has exploded in his most recent performances, recording back-to-back career-high point totals with 22 against Bucknell and 31 against Youngstown State. Senior point guard C.J. Jackson had quietly been averaging 12.3 points per game. And despite a grim outlook at the start of the month, guard Luther Muhammad returned from a dislocated shoulder to play against Illinois after missing just one game. The freshman has scored almost nine points per game and has proven to be a threat from range. Both Jackson and Muhammad had 11 points in their efforts against the Penguins.
The Bruins, meanwhile, have struggled somewhat this season, most recently falling on the road to Cincinnati in a 93-64 rout--the program’s worst loss in four years, and on national television no less. Previously, UCLA dropped a tight match up to the Bruins of Belmont 74-72. Overall, though, the Bruins (of UCLA) are 7-4 on the season, with their other losses coming to top-10 powers Michigan State and North Carolina. In short, they might be better than their record indicates.
Against the Bearcats, UCLA shot just 40 percent from the field, led by sophomore guard Kris Wilkes’ 21 points. They pulled down just 21 rebounds to Cincinnati’s 38, and committed 14 turnovers to Cincinnati’s six.
Wilkes leads the Bruins in scoring with nearly 18 points per game, while freshman center Moses Brown records 9.4 rebounds. Four players are averaging at least 10 points per outing. As a team, the Bruins are shooting 46 percent from the field, including 35 percent from three-point range.
Still, there are cracks coming into sharp relief for this team--namely its lackluster defense which was unable to stop Cincinnati. They’ve also struggled from the line and are among the worst in the nation in free throws, shooting under 62 percent.
Despite a top-three recruiting class, the Bruins have been hindered by injuries already this short season. Shareef O’Neal (Shaq’s kid) came to UCLA as a four-star recruit this year, but experienced health complications during summer practice. He underwent a heart procedure earlier this month and is expected to medical redshirt this season. Point guard Tyger Campbell, a top-100 recruit himself, tore his ACL and is also out for the rest of the year.
Steve Alford is in his sixth season as head coach at UCLA. He’s amassed a 124-59 record with the Bruins, but despite a Sweet Sixteen appearance in 2017, finds himself in the hot seat nonetheless as his team has staggered in the non-conference this year and seems incapable of playing defense.
ESPN BPI: Ohio State 79.7% (as of Friday)
Ohio State is 4-6 all-time against UCLA, with the Bruins taking the last five meetings. Most recently, UCLA defeated Ohio State 86-73 in the 2016 CBS Sports Classic. Still, the Buckeyes hold an edge over the Pac-12 as a whole, owning a narrow, 39-38 advantage all-time versus the conference.
Kaleb Wesson is playing his best basketball right now as he’s become an anchor for his team. Moreover, Ohio State has proven that it can handle everything from halftime deficits to broken teeth on its way to 10 wins. The Buckeyes are fixing many of the mistakes (i.e., turnovers) which caused problems earlier in the season. Still, they’ll need to perform their best against a team which returns three of its top-five scorers from last season, and which is thirsty for revenge after an embarrassing loss to an unranked opponent.
The Buckeyes may have one more non-conference matchup after UCLA before moving on to Big Ten play once again, but this will be Ohio State’s last shot to solidify its out-of-conference tournament resume. Despite its challenges, UCLA is still a top-60 team according to Kenpom. It would be an important win for the Buckeyes before a tough conference season.