It was a quick one-game pitstop for Ohio State back in the win column before heading right back into the doldrums in its last time out. Now losers of five of their last six games, the Buckeyes find themselves unranked in the AP Poll for the first time this season. The Big Ten is one of the toughest conferences in college basketball this year, and OSU is finding that out the hard way as it struggles against league competition continue.
There is still a ton of basketball left to be played this season. Ohio State has an opportunity to get back to the level it was at earlier in the year when it was knocking off elite top 10 opponents with ease, but they must do so sooner rather than later. Chris Holtmann will hope to find a positive launching point when his team takes on Minnesota on Thursday night. The game, which will take place at Value City Arena, is set to tipoff at 6:30 p.m. EST on FS1.
At one point Ohio State was 11-1, ranked No. 2 in the AP Poll and on top of the world. Wins over Villanova, UNC and Kentucky had the Buckeyes looking like legitimate Final Four contenders early in the season, with a suffocating defense and an efficient offense. It seemed as though OSU had shied away from the “all-Kaleb Wesson all the time” game plan that got them in trouble a year ago, and instead spread the ball around to find open shooters with a full-team commitment on the defensive end.
Those days have now quickly passed us by, as Holtmann’s squad is now just 12-6, with a disappointing 2-5 record in conference. After losing to West Virginia at the end of December, all of Ohio State’s little problems that had come up now and again began to become big problems that rapidly stockpiled, resulting in a four-game losing streak before being able to find a win last week against Nebraska. Any good vibes provided by the win would be short-lived, however, as the Buckeyes were dominated in their last time out against Penn State.
After defeating the Nittany Lions by over 30 points in the first meeting between the two teams in December, Ohio State fell 90-74 in University Park on Saturday. PSU got a dominant performance from Lamar Stevens, as the forward dropped 24 points with three rebounds and two blocks. Myreon Jones added another 20 points as the OSU defense once again struggled to guard the three-point line, with the Nittany Lions hitting nine shots from deep in the contest. The side of the ball that was once the team’s strongest component has been letting them down in a big was as of late.
The offense actually wasn’t even that bad. Kaleb Wesson didn't have his best shooting day, but still scored 19 points with five rebounds and four assists. Returning from a one-game suspension, Duane Washington Jr. had one of his best games in over a month, totaling a team-high 20 points on 6-of-10 shooting, including 3-of-5 from beyond the arc. As a team, Ohio State shot a below-average 42.6 percent, but they did hit at a 45 percent clip from downtown as they continue to lead the Big Ten in three-point percentage.
Minnesota is a team that is still trying to figure out what it is this season. After beginning the year 1-4, the Golden Gophers have been able to pick up some big wins at home, including what was at the time a No. 3 Ohio State team and a No. 19 Michigan squad. While winning on the road in the Big Ten has been nearly impossible for the conference as a whole — with away teams holding a 9-43 record in league play — the Gophers have not won a single road game on their schedule, going 0-6 away from Williams Arena this year. Overall, they are 10-8 this season, with a 4-4 record in the Big Ten.
The last time out for Minnesota was that very scenario, as the Gophers fell to a now-ranked Rutgers team 64-56 in Piscataway, NJ. The Scarlet Knights put together a balanced attack, with four different players scoring in double figures. As he has all season, Daniel Oturu led Minnesota in scoring with 19 points while also adding nine rebounds, two assists and two blocks. Overall, it was actually one of the Golden Gophers’ better outings on the road this season as they lost by only eight to a very very good Rutgers unit.
Oturu, a 6-foot-10, 225-pound center out of Woodbury, MN has not only been the best player for Minnesota this year, but also one of the better players in the entire Big Ten conference. His 20.2 points per game are good for second in the league, behind only Luka Garza’s 22.9 points per game at Iowa. Oturu also leads the B1G in rebounds per game with 11.9, a number good enough to rank No. 6 nationally as well. Redshirt sophomore guard Marcus Carr, a transfer from Pitt, ranks second on the team with 16.1 points per game while also averaging a team-high 7.2 assists per game.
As a team, the Gophers have been pretty much the definition of average when it comes to shooting the ball. They rank among the middle of the pack in terms of field goal percentage (43 percent, No. 9 in B1G), three-point percentage (33 percent, No. 7), and free throw percentage (72 percent, No. 7). They are, however, one of the better shot-blocking teams in the league, averaging 5.2 per game — good for third in the conference.
Ohio State is entering an incredibly important stretch of its schedule. Two winnable home games against Minnesota and Indiana sandwich a road contest against the Big Ten’s last place team Northwestern. If the Buckeyes are looking to build any momentum into the latter part of the season, that three-game stretch almost has to result in three wins.
While OSU has not done much right since the start of the new year, they do have a lot of factors in their favor heading into this game agains the Golden Gophers. Minnesota is one of the worst defenders of the three-point line in the Big Ten, coming in at No. 12 out of 14 teams. As previously mentioned, the Buckeyes are the No. 1 team in the league when it comes to shooting the three-ball. The Gophers are also one of the few teams in the conference with a worse turnover margin than Ohio State, which should hopefully negate one of OSU’s most glaring issues.
The Buckeyes certainly don't have one of the more intimidating environments in the Big Ten, but winning on the road in this league has proven difficult regardless of the venue. Minnesota hasn’t won on the road yet this season, and it doesn’t look like that will change on Thursday night. Duane Washington’s good performance against the Nittany Lions will carry over into this one, and the sophomore guard’s three-point shooting will lead Ohio State past the Gophers as the team starts its long climb back up the conference standings.