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Analyzing Ohio State men’s basketball’s ruthless non-conference schedule

Ohio State is set to face three teams ranked in the top 10 of the AP poll before the calendar flips to 2020.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Midwest Regional
Kentucky’s Ashton Hagans may be the most talented guard Ohio State will face in non-conference play
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Ohio State’s basketball program began a steady climb when Chris Holtmann was hired in June of 2017. Coming off a tough year when the Buckeyes not only missed the NCAA tournament but also the NIT, Holtmann was left with some work to do. In his first year, the Buckeyes shocked America by nearly winning the Big Ten after being picked to finish in the basement of the conference, and made it to the NCAA Tournament. Fans and media alike began to start whispering the “B word” No, not Brutus... back.

Everyone wanted to know if Ohio State was back. In a press conference towards the end of the 2017-18 season, a reporter asked Jae’Sean Tate if Ohio State was “back”, and he wouldn’t give a yes or no answer. Others were not as shy answering this question.

In Holtmann’s second year, the Buckeyes finished in the middle of the Big Ten, got into the NCAA Tournament, and upset a higher-seeded Iowa State team in the first round to advance before losing to Houston. Not bad for a team that just snuck into the tournament.

This year, that young core returns with more experience, along with the top ranked recruiting class in the Big Ten. The Buckeyes are ranked 18th in the AP poll, the first time they’ve been ranked in the preseason poll since 2014. We know the Buckeyes are back, but are they good enough to hang with the big beasts of college basketball this season? The non-conference schedule is looking ROUGH, but playing some tough teams early could pay dividends down the road. Ohio State has 11 non-conference games, five of which will be legitimate challenges. The other six... not so much. Let’s take a look at these games, and I’ll classify them as either “Cupcake” or “Challenge”


The Cupcakes

Preface: These are the games I’m very confident Ohio State will win, but nothing is guaranteed, as we’ve seen before (cough, UT-Arlington and Louisiana Tech, cough).

Sunday, Nov. 10, 4:00 p.m. ET- UMass- Lowell (Home)

Monday, Nov. 18, 8:30 p.m. ET- Stetson (Home)

Friday, Nov. 22, 7:00 p.m. ET- Purdue Fort Wayne (Home)

Monday, Nov. 25, 6:30 p.m. ET- Kent State (Home, St. John Arena)

Ohio State hosted Cleveland State in St. John Arena on November 23, 2018
Photo by Patrick Mayhorn

Friday, Nov. 29, 9:00 p.m. ET- Morgan State (Home)

Tuesday, Dec. 17, 7:00 p.m. ET- Southeast Missouri State (Home)

None of these games should really be close, as they’re your typical out of conference games where small schools come to Columbus to get their butts kicked and then leave with an L and a very nice check (we hope). The Kent State game will be played in historic St. John Arena and will be a fantastic atmosphere for college basketball. It goes without being said that Ohio State must win all six of these games.


The Challenges

These are the games that will provide some level of difficulty for the Buckeyes. Some will be tougher than others, but all five of these teams have the talent to beat the Buckeyes if they aren’t playing at their best

Cincinnati

Wednesday, Nov. 6, 8:30 p.m. ET (Home)

Iowa v Cincinnati Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Last season’s record: 28-7 (Second place in AAC)
Tournament result: Lost in first round to Iowa
2019 preseason rank: Unranked
Players to watch: Jarron Cumberland

Analysis:

With Mick Cronin leaving Cincinnati to become the head coach at UCLA, UC hired Northern Kentucky head coach John Brannen to cross the Ohio River and take the reigns at Cincinnati. With Cronin’s departure, five players entered the transfer portal and left UC, however the Bearcats boast the 44th best recruiting class in the nation and return their three leading scorers. Senior guard Jarron Cumberland was on the midseason Naismith Award watch list last season, awarded to the best player in college basketball each year. He lead the team with 18.8 points per game last season to go along with 4.4 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game. Andre Wesson or Kyle Young will likely draw the assignment on Cumberland, but Tre Scott (9.3 ppg) and Keith Williams (9.9 ppg) will also be factors. Cincinnati will be out for revenge after the Buckeyes spoiled the grand opening of their new home arena last season with a 64-56 win. Ohio State will have to limit Cumberland on the defensive end and use their size to their advantage on offense to get a win against the Bearcats and start 1-0.


Villanova- Gavitt Games Matchup

Wednesday, Nov. 13, 7:00 p.m. ET (Home)

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round- Villanova vs Saint Mary’s David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Last season’s record: 26-10 (First place in Big East)
Tournament result: Lost in second round to Purdue
2019 preseason rank: 10
Players to watch: Collin Gillespie, Saddiq Bey, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl

Analysis:

Villanova may be ranked a bit higher than they deserve due to their reputation, but Jay Wright has another talented team that will certainly be favored to win the Big East in 2019. Gone are leading scorers Phil Booth and Eric Paschall, but the Wildcats return junior guard Connor Gillespie (10.9 ppg) and sophomore forward Saddiq Bey (8.2 ppg, 5.1 reb). In addition to these two, Villanova will also start Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, a 6-foot-8 forward and the 16th ranked recruit in the class of 2019 according to 247Sports. While none of these guys jump out on paper as guys who could take over a game and single-handedly beat the Buckeyes Tony Carr style, they all will need to be held in check if Ohio State wants to knock off Villanova.


North Carolina- B1G-ACC Challenge

Wednesday, Dec. 4, 9:30 p.m. ET (Away)

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Last season’s record: 29-7 (First place in ACC)
Tournament result: Lost in Sweet Sixteen to Auburn
2019 preseason rank: 9
Players to watch: Cole Anthony, Armando Bacot, Garrison Brooks

Analysis:

This will be one of the more interesting games Ohio State plays this season, as the biggest weapons North Carolina will roll out are freshmen Armando Bacot and Cole Anthony. Bacot, a 6-foot-10 center ranked by 247Sports as the No. 6 center in the class and No. 27 player overall, will almost certainly match up with Kaleb Wesson. Either of the big men getting in foul trouble could mean problems for their respective teams, so that will be something worth paying attention to.

Anthony, a 6-foot-3 guard who was the No. 1 guard in the class and No. 4 player overall, will be North Carolina’s most dangerous scorer and best overall player. A good but not great shooter, Anthony is already a strong finisher at the rim with a very quick first step. He is already projected to be a lottery pick in the 2020 NBA draft before ever having played a minute at UNC. He will be a tough matchup for whoever Chris Holtmann decides to stick on him.


Kentucky- CBS Sports Classic

Saturday, Dec. 21, 5:15 p.m. ET (Neutral Site-Las Vegas)

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Wofford vs Kentucky Matt Stamey-USA TODAY Sports

Last season’s record: 30-7 (Second place in SEC)
Tournament result: Lost in Elite Eight to Auburn
2019 preseason rank: 2
Players to watch: Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley, Tyrese Maxey, Kahlil Whitney

Analysis:

Kentucky presents Ohio State’s biggest challenge in the non-conference portion of their schedule, and maybe their whole schedule in general. You know a team is talented when their top five scorers from last year are all gone, yet are still ranked No. 2 in the preseason AP poll.

Ashtan Hagans is the only returning starter for John Calipari’s Wildcats, but he’s a handful all by himself. Hagans only scored 7.7 points per game last season, but that can partially be attributed to the ridiculous amount of talent Kentucky had last year. It isn’t that Hagans cannot score, he just didn’t need to be the first, second, third, or even fourth option on last year’s team. He also dished out over four assists per game and is one of the most disruptive defenders in college basketball.

On top that, Kentucky will roll out a couple freshmen ranked in the top 11 of their class according to 247Sports. Tyrese Maxey, who is already projected to go in the first round of the 2020 NBA Draft, was the No. 3 combo guard in the class and No. 10 player overall. To put it in perspective, that is higher than D’Angelo Russell when he committed to Ohio State. At 6-foot-3 and close to 200 pounds, he is tough to keep out of the lane and can shoot it, too.

Whitney, the No. 11 ranked player overall and No. 2 small forward in the class, had offers from 26 schools including Rutgers (how’d he pass that one up?) and Florida. Lauded for his defense and rebounding, Whitney can score at all three levels but will probably not be the type of player who single-handedly takes over a game early on this season.


West Virginia

Sunday, Dec. 29, 12:00 p.m. ET (Neutral Site-Cleveland)

NCAA Basketball: Big 12 Conference Tournament-Texas Tech vs. West Virginia William Purnell-USA TODAY Sports

Last season’s record: 15-21 (Last place in Big Twelve)
Tournament result: Did not qualify
2019 preseason rank: Unranked
Players to watch: Derek Culver

Analysis:

West Virginia was bad last year. I mean, real bad. They lost 21 games and got booted in the second round of the CIT Tournament by Coastal Carolina. Oof. But the good news for head coach Bob Huggins, AKA Huggy Bear, is that things literally cannot get any worse. West Virginia returns 4 starters this season and will certainly be more competitive than they were last season.

However, West Virgnia’s success will be contingent on the improvement of their returning players (who together lost 21 games last year). Derek Culver jumps out as a guy who could give Ohio State problems. The 6-foot-11 center nearly averaged a double-double last season, scoring 11.5 points per game and averaging 9.9 rebounds per contest. He will be a challenge for Kaleb Wesson, and if Wesson gets in foul trouble the responsibility will likely fall on the shoulders of Andre Wesson or Kyle Young.

This game is being played in Cleveland, and shouldn’t be too much trouble for the Buckeyes. However, you can never count out a Bob Huggins-coached team, so we’ll have to wait and see.