This college basketball season is without a doubt going to be weird. We haven’t even made it to game one of the 2020-21 campaign yet, and already Duke’s opener has been postponed for COVID-19 issues at Gardiner-Webb and Tennessee’s entire program is on pause after head coach Rick Barnes tested positive for the virus. All we can do at this point is hope for the best and work with what we have.
That being said, Ohio State has — at least on paper for now — a small non-conference schedule to open the year before jumping into Big Ten play. There are a few less games on the docket than your typical season, as after playing 11 non-conference opponents and 20 B1G games last year, the Buckeyes will only have six non-conference matchups and 18 games against Big Ten foes.
Ohio State likely won’t be tested all that much through the non-conference slate, but it does finish with a pair of marquee matchups. Let’s run through those six games and get a feel for what Chris Holtmann’s guys have on the horizon.
Illinois State (Nov. 25)
Ohio State opens up their season against Illinois State. The Redbirds will be looking to bounce back from a dismal campaign a year ago, finishing 10-21 overall with a 5-13 record in the Missouri Valley Conference — good for ninth place out of 10 teams. It was the first losing season for the program under head coach Dan Muller, who is entering his ninth year at the helm. Muller has compiled a 149-117 record overall at Illinois State, tying with Wichita State for the regular season conference title back in 2016-17.
The Redbirds will be without their two leading scorers from a year ago, with Zach Copeland graduating at the end of last season and senior forward Keith Fisher III opting out. It is a big time youth movement for Illinois State, with 11 of the 15 guys on the roster being underclassmen — seven of which are freshmen or redshirt freshmen. They will likely be led by D.J. Horne, a sophomore guard who was third on the team in scoring last season with 8.7 points per game as a freshman.
UMass-Lowell (Nov. 29)
The Buckeyes then take on the River Hawks. UMass-Lowell finished 13-19 a year ago, with a 7-9 record in the America East Conference good for a tie for sixth place out of nine teams. They are led by Pat Duquette, who is in his eighth year with the program and yet to finish a season with a winning record. The Red Hawks were led a year ago by senior guard Christian Lutete, who averaged 19.3 points per game and was named America East Man of the Year.
While Lutete is now off the roster having graduated, the team does return last year’s second-leading scorer — senior guard Obadiah Noel. The 6-foot-4 sharpshooter averaged 18.3 points per game last season while hitting at an impressive 40% clip from downtown. His three-point percentage, as well as his assist numbers, both led the team, and he was named to the America East All-Conference First Team as a result. As a senior, Noel will now be the face of the River Hawks, who are ranked seventh in the conference’s preseason poll.
Morehead State (Dec. 2)
Next up on the slate is Morehead State. The Eagles ended last season with a 13-19 record, going 7-11 in the Ohio Valley Conference to finish eighth out of 12 teams. Head coach Preston Spradlin is entering his fifth year with the program, coaching to a 45-69 overall mark thus far. Morehead State will need to replace its two leading scorers from last season, as both Jordan Walker (12.3 ppg) and Djimon Henson (10.4 ppg) have since graduated.
Picked to finish eighth once again in the OVC preseason polls, the Eagles return a young but experienced group of players, led by senior forward James Baker and sophomore forward Tyzhaun Claude. Baker is the only senior on the roster, averaging 9.1 points per game last year while leading the team with 42 blocks — good for fourth in the OVC in blocks per game (1.3). Claude started 19 games as a freshman last season, averaging 9.5 points per game on nearly 60% shooting from the field.
Alabama A&M (Dec. 5)
The Bulldogs will function as a nice tuneup game before Ohio State’s first real test of the season against Notre Dame. Alabama A&M finished 8-22 a year ago, with just a 5-13 mark in the Southwest Athletic Conference that saw them sitting at eighth in the league. They are entering the third season under head coach Dylan Howard, who has gone just 13-49 at the helm. They were one of the worst teams in the country scoring the rock last year, ranking No. 343 out of 353 teams with 61.5 points per game.
Projected to finish eighth for the second year in a row in the SWAC preseason poll, the Bulldogs will return a ton of their talent from last season as nearly 70% of their offensive production came from freshmen. The two starters in the backcourt will remain the same, as guards Garrett Hicks and Cameron Tucker both played pivotal roles as first-year guys. Hicks averaged 11 points per game last season, and has been named a Lindys Sports Second-Team All-SWAC honoree, while Tucker started all 30 games and led the team in assists.
Notre Dame (Dec. 8)
As previously alluded to, Ohio State’s first (potential) marquee matchup of the year comes against the Fighting Irish in this year’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Notre Dame played good but not great a year ago, going 20-12 overall with a 10-10 record in the ACC that saw them finish sixth in the conference. Mike Brey has been the head coach of the Irish since 2000, compiling a 437-233 record while making the NCAA Tournament 12 times and winning two ACC titles.
Unfortunately, Notre Dame is not projected to be all that great this season. Picked to finish 12th in the ACC preseason poll, the Irish do not have a single player named to the preseason All-ACC first or second teams. They are tasked with replacing their two graduated leading scorers from a year ago in T.J. Gibbs and John Mooney, but return junior guard Prentiss Hubb. Averaging 12.1 points per game last season, Hubb ranks third among all returning players in power conferences with 293 career assists.
North Carolina (Dec. 19)
By far the best team Ohio State will play outside the Big Ten, they wrap up the non-conference schedule with a rematch against North Carolina. It was a down year for the Tar Heels in 2019-20, who finished 14-19 overall — including a 25-point loss to the Buckeyes — and went 6-14 in ACC play to finish second-to-last in the conference. Roy Williams has been coaching since the dawn of time, and began his UNC tenure in 2003. He has won over 75% of his games as the head coach of the Tar Heels, and has won three NCAA titles.
It is expected to be a bounce-back year for UNC, picked fourth in the preseason ACC poll. They will be without star Cole Anthony, who was taken in the first round of last week’s NBA Draft, but they return a ton of talent elsewhere. Garrison Brooks, the second-leading scorer on last year’s team behind Anthony, has been selected as the Preseason ACC Player of the Year, while both he and Caleb Love have been named to the Naismith Trophy Watch List. Brooks averaged 16.5 points per game to go along with 8.5 rebounds per contest as a junior, while Love is a five-star freshman rated the No. 2 point guard in the country.