Leading up to their game against the upstart Northwestern Wildcats last weekend, Ohio State was ascending. They’d won back-to-back games, including overcoming a 16-point deficit to beat then-No. 13 Rutgers at home by 12. Just before that, they knocked off a very talented UCLA squad, 77-70. The Buckeyes were hot and had a chance to move to 8-1 on the season if they could beat the team I picked to finish 13th in the Big Ten before the year started.
But with just over a minute to go in a back-and-forth battle in Evanston, Boo Buie sank a three that twisted the dagger in the hearts of every Ohio State fan, player, and coach. Yes, it was only a three-point deficit, but all day long, the Buckeyes were protecting a slim lead. With every Wildcat punch, Ohio State punched back and continued to hang onto that lead. Now, that lead was gone.
Kyle Young was able to cut the Northwestern lead down to 71-70 with a couple of free throws, and then Chris Holtmann called his final timeout with 12 seconds to go and possession of the ball. Ohio State had an opportunity to win it on the final shot, but Duane Washington Jr.’s wide open layup was too strong off the glass. Northwestern secured the rebound and the victory, improving to 3-0 in B1G play. Ohio State fell to 1-2 in conference play.
While there are still 17 games to go, Wednesday night’s game against the cellar-dwelling Nebraska Cornhuskers (4-5, 0-2) very much feels like a must-win game, considering Ohio State’s January schedule is an absolute meat grinder. The No. 25 Buckeyes (7-2, 1-2) need to take advantage of every home game, especially against teams like Nebraska, because well.... there’s nobody as bad as Nebraska. Ohio State will see almost exclusively ranked teams for the next few weeks, so this is not a game Chris Holtmann can let slip away.
Saturday’s loss to Northwestern was especially perplexing because the Buckeyes really did outperform Northwestern in most areas. They outrebounded the Wildcats 40-26, including an 11-4 advantage on the offensive glass. This lead to 17 second-chance points, as opposed to just two for the Wildcats. The Buckeyes got to the free-throw line more and hit them at a higher clip, knocking down 12 of their 15 chances at the stripe.
Ohio State turned the ball over 10 times, which is right around their season average of 9.4 entering the game. Eight of the 10 TO’s came in the first half however, so it was obvious that Holtmann emphasized taking care of the basketball at halftime.
But the three-point shooting. Oh, God, the three-point shooting.
The Buckeyes continued their inept shooting from downtown against Northwestern, hitting just four of their 20 attempts from beyond the arc. Players not named Seth Towns (who hit three of his four three-point attempts) were a combined 1-of-16, good for a shooting percentage of 6.25%. That’s not just bad, that’s awful. So awful, that players not named Seth should probably do push-ups for attempting three-pointers if it happens against Nebraska.
The Wildcats, on the other hand, were 6-of-16 from distance, for an average but unspectacular 37.5%.
Nebraska should not be as big a challenge as Northwestern, especially at home, but the Buckeyes need to be more patient and find higher percentage looks against the Huskers. With a healthy E.J. Liddell and Seth Towns, the Buckeyes are finally playing with a full deck. There’s no reason to settle for tough shots when you have the personnel to work the ball inside for a higher percentage look. And if Ohio State can establish the inside, then — like magic — those outside shots will be less contested and easier to knock down.
Nebraska is bad. They’re the 115th-best team in the country according to Ken Pomeroy, and are the only B1G team sitting outside the top-100. For reference, Penn State is the next lowest at No. 54. The Cornhuskers lost their first two conference games by a combined total of 25 points to Wisconsin and Michigan, and with their next three games being at Ohio State, vs Michigan State, and at Purdue, it may be awhile before second-year head coach Fred Hoiberg gets his first B1G win of the season.
Besides the fact that the Buckeyes haven’t been able to throw the ball into a swimming pool lately, this matchup with Nebraska gives them a great reason to really get back to the basics. Nebraska’s top-four scorers (Teddy Allen, Dalano Banton, Trey McGowens, and Kobe Wesbter) are all guards and collectively are an average height of 6-foot-4.
Nebraska’s tallest starter is 6-foot-9, 205 pound forward Lat Mayen, who grew up in Australia and played one season at TCU before transferring to Nebraska. The Australian stringbean averages 6.4 points and 5.1 rebounds per contest, but is shooting a paltry 32.3% overall. That’s below average for any player, but especially one who takes most of their shots close to the basket.
With Liddell (6-foot-7), Young (6-foot-8), Towns (6-foot-8), Justice Sueing (6-foot-7), and Zed Key (6-foot-8) all healthy, the Buckeyes have a plethora of bodies to throw at the undersized Huskers. Individually, none of them represent a massive mismatch, but as the night goes on, defending Ohio State’s collection of wings will wear down the Huskers. Double-teams on guys like Liddell and Key will open up opportunities for guards Washington and CJ Walker on the outside, too.
If Nebraska can consistently knock down three-pointers like Rutgers did in the first half of their game against the Buckeyes, this game could be close for a bit longer than you’d expect. Allen (18.2 PTS, 44% FG) and Blanton (14.2 PTS, 7.4 REB, 5.2 AST) are big-time scorers who will give Ohio State problems. McGowens (11.1 PTS, 40.7% 3PT) and Webster (8.7 PTS, 37.8% 3PT) are both perimeter threats the Buckeyes will have to keep an eye on as well.
I don’t think the Huskers will have a problem keeping up with the Buckeyes offensively. They’re almost an inverse of Ohio State, as they employ plenty of talented guards, but have absolutely no presence down low. The problem will be their ability (or inability) to defend.
This game has the potential to be high-scoring between a Nebraska team that loves to sprint up and down the court (32nd in adjusted tempo according to KenPom) and an Ohio State squad that should, for the most part, be able to make their way into the paint over and over with no problem.
Don’t be shocked if this game is tight at halftime, as the Huskers’ trailed No. 9 Wisconsin by just a point at halftime in their game, and No. 19 Michigan by two at the break. They went on to lose both of those games by double digits, but Hoiberg’s team has stayed competitive in the first half of games all season long. This is a better Nebraska team that what Ohio State saw last season, but in a wild and cannibalistic B1G, they’re still the worst team in the conference.
The Buckeyes can’t possibly shoot worse than they did against Northwestern, and there’s no way in hell they continue chucking three-pointers at the rate they did last weekend (right?). This game could be close for a little while, but Ohio State should pull away in the final 10 minutes to secure their fifth-straight win over the Cornhuskers.
ESPN BPI: Ohio State 84.7%
6:30 PM ET