The Big Ten is an absolute dogfight from top to bottom this season. Ohio State’s schedule gets pretty brutal once the calendar flips to January, so when a team like Nebraska — who has begun the year 0-2 in conference — pops up on the schedule, you have to try and take advantage. Chris Holtmann’s squad was able to do just that on Wednesday night, easily dispatching the Cornhuskers 90-54 as the No. 25 Buckeyes moved to 8-2 overall on the year.
The Buckeyes were led in the scoring department by Justin Ahrens, who seemingly could not miss from deep in the second period as he racked up 18 points on 6-of-9 shooting from beyond the arc. It was a great night for freshman forward Zed Key as well, who finished a perfect 5-of-5 shooting for a career-high 14 points to go along with four rebounds and a block. Ohio State out-scored Nebraska 52-33 in the second half as Holtmann was able to empty his bench down the stretch in a rare never-in-doubt win in-conference.
Cold as ice
Duane Washington Jr. is undoubtably one of the best shooters on Ohio State’s roster. When he gets it going, the basket looks like an ocean to him. In fact, his 55 total threes led the team a year ago. However, the junior’s biggest issue throughout his career with the Buckeyes has been consistency. Washington is incredibly streaky, and when he is not on one of his hot streaks, he has a tough time working his way out of a funk — which he is seemingly in the midst of right now. Last time out was by far Washington’s worst performance of the season.
Shooting just 1-for-9 from the field against Northwestern — including a 1-for-6 mark from beyond the arc — the guard finished the game with just seven points. His first time this year scoring in the single digits, Washington just could not get anything to fall, including what could have been the game-winning layup off a beautifully designed play out of a timeout at the end of the game. His numbers have taken a hit overall this season, with his field goal percentage dropping from over 41% a year ago to 37% this season, and his three-point percentage has fallen from 39% down to 33% as well.
It looked like we were in store for another shaky performance for Washington on Wednesday, as he missed his first three shots from the floor and started off 0-for-3 from 3-point range. However, he was able to turn things around a little bit and get some shots to go down. Finishing the contest with 13 points, Washington knocked down three attempts from range while hitting 5-of-11 from the floor overall. The 3-point shooting still isn’t where you would like it to be (3-of-7), but it was certainly a step in the right direction.
What Ohio State has been able to do in the paint this season at both ends of the floor has been very impressive. They lost their tallest starter this past offseason when Kaleb Wesson decided to test the NBA waters, and without a true center on the roster, the Buckeyes are pretty undersized. Especially compared to some of the star bigs around the Big Ten, you would think Ohio State would struggle to both score and defend the paint, but that has not even been the slightest bit true.
Guys like E.J. Liddell (6-foot-7), Kyle Young (6-foot-8) and Zed Key (6-foot-8) have done a phenomenal job inside through the early goings of the season. Despite giving up a few inches to many opposing forwards that come their way, the physicality of this trio has paid massive dividends for the Buckeyes. Liddell has been a bruising body underneath, leading Ohio State in scoring (15.3 points per game) and second in rebounding (6.7 per game) behind only Young (7.0 per game). These three guys cumulatively have been able to out-muscle the opposition, leading to foul trouble for the other team and a points in the paint/rebounding advantage on most nights.
The Buckeyes continued to dominate in the paint on Wednesday, outscoring Nebraska 30-22 in the paint and out-rebounding the Huskers 45-35 as they once again won the battle on the glass. Ohio State also came away with five blocks, led by two apiece from Liddell and Eugene Brown III.
Ohio State’s identity in the Holtmann era has been as a strong defensive unit, and that has certainly been no different to begin this season. Coming into tonight’s action, the Buckeyes ranked top-five in the Big Ten in points allowed per game at 66.3, and they clearly looked like a team firing on all cylinders at that end of the floor against Nebraska — especially in the first period, where they were able to open up a 17-point lead heading into the break.
Through 20 minutes of play, the Cornhuskers managed to hit just six total field goals on 29 attempts. Nebraska was especially putrid from downtown, where Fred Hoiberg’s team knocked down only three triples despite taking 16 shots from beyond the arc. The Huskers struggled mightily in the latter half of the first period, where they went nearly 10 full minutes of game time without knocking down a single shot from the floor before Trey McGowens’ 3-pointer found the twine with 3:01 left until halftime.
In addition to the outside shots not falling, Nebraska managed just six points in the paint in the opening period, and turned the ball over seven times. Overall, the Cornhuskers would go on to shoot just 28% in the game, including an incredibly inept 5-of-33 (15%) from 3-point range. Ohio State’s defense forced 15 total turnovers, which directly led to 21 points the other way.
A better night from beyond
Ohio State could have really pulled away from Nebraska early on if they could hit their 3-pointers, but that is something the Buckeyes have struggled with all season long. The inability to hit from range has been one of the biggest problem areas for Holtmann’s team this year, ranking dead last in the Big Ten at just under 31% as a team heading into tonight. With Washington struggling with his outside shot this year, OSU does not have many guys that can really hurt you from deep, and it has proven costly.
While they were able to overcome these woes against the Cornhuskers, their performance from downtown was not any improvement. The opening period was another disaster, as Ohio State hit just four of their 14 attempts from beyond the arc — good for a less-than-stellar 29%. Justin Ahrens and Seth Towns have proven to be solid shooters from range this season, both hitting one apiece in the first half, but neither have played a ton of minutes or shoot with enough volume to make the numbers look any better as a whole.
The Buckeyes were much better from deep in the second half, thanks entirely to Ahrens and Washington. Hitting on 8-of-18 attempts (44.4%) from beyond the arc as a team, all eight of those makes came from that duo, as Washington hit on 3-of-4 while Ahrens was an unconscious 5-of-7 in the period. Overall, Ohio State finished with a season-high 12 total 3-pointers, while their 38% shooting clip was one of their highest of the year.
Filling the minutes
Heading into the night, we knew Ohio State would be without Musa Jallow, who was forced to miss the contest against Nebraska as a result of COVID-19 contact tracing. It is unclear how long Jallow will be held out of competition, but the guard has been a very valuable piece off the bench for the Buckeyes this season. Averaging 5.7 points per game, Jallow has brought a bundle of energy to the defensive side of the floor, and Holtmann had to find other ways to fill his usual 22 minutes per game against the Huskers.
A good chunk of these minutes instead went to Jimmy Sotos and Eugene Brown. While neither guy did much on the offensive end, they were both strong on defense, with the freshman Brown hauling in an impressive six rebounds and Sotos pulling down three and adding an assist. The extra minutes also allowed for Justice Sueing to play a bit of a bigger role, having his best performance over the last four games as he finished with 12 points and six boards.