It’s a long Big Ten season, but the opening games of January have certainly not been what Chris Holtmann and the 21st-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes men’s basketball team have been hoping for. Riding a four-game slide that began back in December, the Buckeyes are looking to get back on track as they return home to face Nebraska.
The Buckeyes are sitting at 11-5 on the year. However, despite having finished its non-conference slate with an impressive, 10-1 record with wins over Villanova, Kentucky and North Carolina, Ohio State has struggled early in Big Ten play. In their most recent matchup Saturday, the Buckeyes fell to Indiana 66-54 in Bloomington.
Meanwhile others, namely Michigan State, have already jumped ahead in the conference standings, leaving Ohio State in the dust.
Now, however, after two games away from Value City Arena, the Buckeyes return home to get back in the hunt in the Big Ten. They’ll look to take the first step that direction against the Huskers tonight at 6:30 EST in Columbus.
Things did not go Ohio State’s way Saturday in Bloomington. Despite leading by three at the half, the Buckeyes couldn’t keep the Hoosiers’ second half push at bay, ultimately leading to the 12-point loss.
Ohio State scored just 20 second half points as the Buckeyes were once again plagued by poor three-point shooting, connecting on just 2-of-14 second half attempts despite going 7-of-12 in the first. In all, Ohio State shot 21% from the field in the second, and the Buckeyes’ 54 points were the fewest scored all season for the squad.
On the flip side, the Buckeyes struggled defending the Hoosiers from range. In fact, sophomore guard Rob Phinisee hit his first three three-point attempts of the day, despite making just six previously all season. In total, the Hoosiers shot 50% from three-point range. Despite their struggles on Saturday, the Buckeyes still boast the stingiest defense in the Big Ten, allowing just 59.4 points per game with under 37% shooting from the floor.
Senior forward Andre Wesson led the Buckeyes in scoring with 15 points on the afternoon, while junior forward Kaleb Wesson added 11 points and 10 rebounds for his sixth double-double of the year. Junior forward Kyle Young, in his first game back following his appendectomy, had one point and three rebounds in 23 minutes of play.
Adding to the troubles, sophomore guard Duane Washington, Jr. played just eight minutes against the Hoosiers, scoring only two points. Despite limited time, Washington remains one of the top three-point shooters in the conference, connecting on nearly 44% of his attempts.
With a 1-4 record in conference play, the Buckeyes are tied for 13th in the Big Ten standings with Northwestern. They are 3.5 games back from Michigan State who, despite falling to Purdue Sunday, appears to be all but running away with the conference once again.
The Huskers, however, have also struggled throughout this season, posting a 7-9 record so far this year, including 2-3 in conference play. Those struggles have been even more pronounced on the road, where Nebraska has gone 0-4 this season.
Most recently, Nebraska fell to Northwestern 62-57 in Evanston. Sophomore guard Cam Mack led the effort for the Huskers with team highs in points (11), rebounds (10) and assists (7). Senior guard Haanif Cheatham added 10 points of his own on the afternoon. Mack and Cheatham were the only two players to score in double digits as the Huskers shot a collective 31% from the field. Nebraska also struggled from the line, shooting just 54.5%.
Nebraska is led by head coach Fred Hoiberg, who is in his first season at the helm in Lincoln. If that name seems familiar, it’s because Hoiberg was previously the coach of the Chicago Bulls and Iowa State. In fact, Hoiberg was head coach of the Cyclones during the 2013 NCAA Tournament when Aaron Craft connected on a three-pointer to give Ohio State the win and one of the best postseason moments in recent basketball memory.
On the year, Cheatham and Mack lead the Huskers in scoring at 13.1 and 12.7 points per game, respectively. Mack also boasts one of the best assist-to-turnover ratios in the conference at 2.5.
Nebraska is among the bottom of the Big Ten in most statistical categories, including scoring defense (74.1 points per game allowed), free throw percentage (58.9%) and rebounding margin (-10.4) -- three categories in which the Huskers are 14th in the conference. One of the areas that Nebraska has been dominant, however, is steals. The Huskers are fourth in the conference with 6.7 steals per game, and three Nebraska players are averaging greater than one steal per game.
The Buckeyes are 16-4 all-time against Nebraska, and hold an 8-1 advantage when playing in Columbus.
ESPN BPI: Ohio State 95.3%
On paper, the Buckeyes appear to be heavily favored in tonight’s matchup against the Huskers. However, as losers of four-straight games, there’s a lot that Holtmann’s team must clean up as they move deeper into Big Ten play.
Firstly, Ohio State has to limit its turnovers. The Buckeyes have had a problem coughing up the ball all season, but the issue has become more pronounced throughout their four-game skid. Ohio State is 209th in the NCAA in turnovers per game with 13.9, and gave up 16 against Indiana. The Buckeyes will have a tough matchup against Nebraska when it comes to turnovers, as the Huskers are tops in the conference in turnover margin (+3.0).
Next up are the Buckeyes’ struggles from the free throw line. Against Indiana, Ohio State connected on just 11-of-19 shots from the stripe (58%). On the year, the Buckeyes have been generally mediocre in the category, shooting 73.4% from the free throw line.
Ohio State also needs to find its identity on offense. Prior to their current slide, the Buckeyes had been averaging nearly 80 points per game, but the offense has lost its luster, recently scoring less than 60 points per game.
Finally come the injury issues that have plagued the Buckeyes all season. It would seem that Ohio State is back and healthy. However, Washington has struggled since he came back from a rib injury and Young, for all his toughness, is still recovering from having his appendix removed.
When it comes to the big picture, yes, it is a long season, but Ohio State can’t afford to fall much further behind in conference play. There are a lot of pieces the Buckeyes must turn around to get back to their winning ways. However, returning home and facing a struggling Nebraska team could be the recipe Ohio State needs.