Ohio State men’s basketball might still be riding high from it’s 71-65 win over No. 6 Kentucky, but the second-ranked Buckeyes have one more game before they can restart conference play in 2020 as they prepare to face No. 22 West Virginia in Cleveland. Ohio State is sitting at 11-1 on the year, its only loss coming to Minnesota on the road. Even more impressive is the resume Ohio State has already built. In fact, the Mountaineers are the fourth ranked opponent the Buckeyes have faced in the non-conference season, and Ohio State has already recorded wins over the other three -- Villanova, UNC and Kentucky.
The Buckeyes return to action after more than a week off since their big win in Vegas on Dec. 21. That rest will be much needed once the rigorous, 20-game Big Ten schedule begins.
Now, Ohio State looks to fine-tune its game against a strong, Big 12 opponent in West Virginia today at noon in Cleveland.
Ohio State looked to be firing on all cylinders when the Buckeyes faced Kentucky earlier this month. In a tightly-contested match, the Buckeyes led by just a point at the half, but stayed focused to secure the six-point win in front of a largely pro-Kentucky crowd in Las Vegas.
Freshman D.J. Carton showed why he was the No. 4 point guard in his class, dropping 15 points against the Wildcats to lead the Buckeyes. More impressive is the fact Carton was the Buckeyes’ leading scorer while coming off the bench. Junior forwards Kaleb Wesson and Kyle Young added 10 points apiece.
Even better for the Buckeyes’ championship aspirations was the return of Duane Washington Jr. In his first game back after sustaining a rib injury, the sophomore guard had eight points in 14 minutes coming off the bench. Washington’s presence was certainly missed in the Buckeyes’ sole loss of the season against Minnesota earlier this month. Before his injury, Washington had been averaging 11.4 points per game and was a force from the field, connecting on greater than 50% of his shots – including from beyond the arc.
In all, the Buckeyes shot 50% from the field. Ohio State also outrebounded Kentucky 33-25. Unfortunately for Ohio State, turnovers remained a problem against the Wildcats, as the Buckeyes coughed the ball up 14 times to the Wildcats’ 11.
On the other hand, Ohio State did connect on 21-of-27 free throws on the night, which is an improvement on that stat from earlier this season (77.8% vs. 72.4%, respectively).
Defensively, the Buckeyes held Kentucky under 43% shooting. More impressive in the Buckeyes’ win, however, is just how much Ohio State’s defense was able to make adjustments in the second half. After the break, Ohio State held the Wildcats to just 34.5% shooting. And while the lead was never more than eight for the Buckeyes, Holtmann’s squad was still ahead for more than 30 minutes of play.
The Buckeyes’ play against Kentucky was certainly not an anomaly -- a fact that has become clear in recent polls. The Buckeyes are the top-ranked team in this week’s KenPom rankings, and are No. 2 in the NET (NCAA Evaluation Tool) rankings, conceding one spot to an undefeated San Diego State.
Defensively, on the year, Ohio State boasts the nation’s 10th-best scoring defense, allowing under 58 points per game.
Offensively, three-point shooting has been a boon for the Buckeyes this season. Ohio State is collectively shooting nearly 41% from range, which is good for eighth in the NCAA. The Buckeyes are led in that area by a quintet of shooters – including Washington, sophomore guard Luther Muhammed, both Wesson brothers and Young -- who individually are shooting 40% or better from beyond the arc.
With all these pieces in place, and a resume which already features top-10 wins over three teams from three different conferences, things are definitely looking up for Ohio State as the Buckeyes wrap up conference play with one last ranked matchup against West Virginia.
West Virginia is led by storied coach Bob Huggins, who has been at the helm of the Mountaineers since 2007. Coincidentally, Huggins was an assistant at Ohio State from 1978-80 under Eldon Miller. The Morgantown native, who finished his playing career with the Mountaineers, currently holds an all-time coaching record of 276-152 at WVU during his 13th season at the helm of his alma mater.
On the court, the Mountaineers have been anchored by two young, talented big men in freshman Oscar Tshiebwe and sophomore Derek Culver. Tshiebwe, who came to Morgantown as a five-star recruit, leads West Virginia in scoring with nearly 13 points per game. Culver is not far behind, totaling 11.4 points per game. Both are also pulling in more than nine rebounds per matchup.
The Buckeyes will also have to contend with Jermaine Haley, who is averaging 11.1 points per game while shooting greater than 64% from the field. After missing the Mountaineers’ matchup against Nicholls State due to a coaching decision, the senior guard returned with an 11-point performance in 25 minutes against Youngstown State.
Like Ohio State, West Virginia has had some time to rest since its last game, having last been in action Dec. 21. In that matchup, the Mountaineers overcame Youngstown State 75-64 for their third-straight win. Tshiebwe led West Virginia in scoring with 19 points on the day, while Culver poured in 15 to seal the win. In all, five players scored in double figures for the Mountaineers. Also impressive was that the young team was able to secure the nine-point win despite being down three at the half and falling behind by as much as seven early in the second.
West Virginia, while it has recorded some impressive wins already this season, does not yet have a win over a team ranked in the AP top 25. Like the Buckeyes, this matchup is the last chance for the Mountaineers to build up their non-conference resume ahead of the start of Big 12 play next week when they travel to face No. 5 Kansas. Thus far, the Mountaineers have recorded wins over the likes of Wichita State and Pittsburgh, with their only loss coming to St. John’s in Madison Square Garden.
ESPN BPI: Ohio State 71.5%
Today’s game represents one of the marquee men’s college basketball matchups of the weekend, as one of just two games between ranked opponents (No. 3 Louisville faced off against No. 19 Kentucky yesterday).
While West Virginia boasts a stout defense, anchored by Tshiebwe and Culver, that pair will be facing off against Kaleb Wesson, who has emerged as one of the top big men in the nation through 11 games. When combined with Carton’s emerging skillset, the Ohio State offense is becoming quite potent.
The Mountaineers have also shown some points of weakness this season, including from the free throw line. West Virginia is among the worst in the NCAA from the charity stripe, connecting on just two-thirds of their free throws.
While Ohio State’s sole loss has come on the road, and the Buckeyes played a close game at a “neutral” site in Las Vegas, one would expect the crowd in Cleveland -- also, technically, a neutral site -- to create a home away from home for the Buckeyes.
It’ll certainly be a tough test for Ohio State. But with a strong defense and an emerging offense, the Buckeyes look to have all the pieces to add another signature win to their resume this afternoon.