On Friday night in Tulsa, Okla., the No. 11 Ohio State Buckeyes had to survive a tense few final minutes against the No. 6 Iowa State Cyclones in their first round game in the NCAA Tournament. The Buckeyes ended up holding on to win 62-59.
On the other hand, their opponent in Sunday’s Round of 32 game, the No. 3 Houston Cougars — one of the most entertaining and exciting teams in the country — did not have to sweat down the stretch, as the American Athletic Conference regular season champs ran away from the No. 14 Georgia State Panthers, 84-55.
Their first round contests are just the most recent examples of how differently OSU and Houston’s seasons have gone. While Chris Holtmann’s Buckeyes enter the second round riding high on their 20th win of the season (20-14, 8-12), disgraced former Indiana head coach Kelvin Sampson’s Cougars come into Sunday with an eye-popping 32-3 record; including a 19-1 mark in conference play.
The Buckeyes started the season going 12-1, reaching as high as No. 13 in the AP poll, before the bottom fell out once the calendar flipped from 2018 to 2019. While the Cougars did lose their first game of the season early in the calendar year (73-69 to Temple on Jan. 9), they went on to win their next 12, ending the regular season with a 29-2 mark.
However, the two teams aren’t complete opposites. Both feature guard-dominated lineups with the Cougars’ top five scorers all coming from the backcourt; Corey Davis Jr. (16.9), Armoni Brooks (13.3), Galen Robinson Jr. (7.8), Nate Hinton (7.5), and Dejon Jarreau (8.9).
While OSU relies primarily on six players that average 20 minutes or more, Houston spreads out its rotation more evenly. Davis Jr. and Brooks average more than 30 minutes, while Robinson Jr. is at 29.6 per game. However, no one else on the squad plays more than 20 minutes per contest, but six other Cougs see more than 10 minutes of game time on average.
Due to their depth, the Cougars will look to run the floor as much as possible, which could force Holtmann to rely on some of his younger players more than normal, like Duane Washington Jr., Musa Jallow, and Justin Ahrens. But, unlike the Cougars, Ohio State has a dominant big man to throw into the mix.
Following his game-changing performance against Iowa State, Holtmann will undoubtedly look to run the OSU offense through Kaleb Wesson, especially since Sampson doesn’t have a natural answer for the Buckeye big man. The two likely options to try to get in Wesson’s way will be 6-foot-8, 260-pound senior forward (and Akron native) Breaon Brady and 6-foot-7, 230-pound sophomore Fabian White Jr. While both are starters, they combine to play just about 32 minutes per game, picking up an average of 12.6 points and 8.1 rebounds.
By relying on two big men, that means that they will have 10 fouls to throw at Wesson. While the Buckeyes’ center is a great free throw-shooter, two bigs from an up-and-down the floor team could present a conditioning challenge for Kaleb Wesson.
Against Georgia State, Houston’s two big men combined for an impressive 27 points and 19 rebounds. Of course it is worth noting that the Panthers only have one player taller than 6-foot-6 who plays more than four minutes per game. That player is 6-foot-9 senior forward Jordan Tyson, who gets about 12.2 minutes of PT per contest. He was held to one shot (a miss) in 15 minutes against the Cougars.
While Houston’s record is obviously impressive, they have done it primarily against mid-major programs and lower. If you’ve watched them at all this season, you know that the Cougars are one of the most talented teams in the country. However, obviously the bulk of their schedule was made up of games in the American Athletic Conference, but their non-conference slate didn’t provide much top-level competition either. The only Power Five teams that Houston has played in 2018-19 were then-No. 18 Oregon (65-61) and Oklahoma State (63-53), who finished the year with a 12-20, 5-13 record.
In addition to the Ducks, the only other games against ranked opponents this year were against Cincinnati, which the Cougars split. So, while Houston will almost certainly have a depth advantage, the Buckeyes very well might be able to surprise them with how athletic, and physical, even an 8-12 Big Ten team can be.