The Ohio State Buckeyes men’s basketball game is certainly looking up. Ranked for the first time in nearly a month, the Buckeyes have won two-straight in Columbus against Rutgers and Purdue, meaning their NCAA Tournament hopes remain alive and strong.
However, the Buckeyes can’t let up just yet as they travel to Iowa City to face a commanding Hawkeye squad for all the marbles. That’s because tonight marks the first and only time Ohio State and Iowa are scheduled to face off this regular season. With just six games remaining in said regular season, including tonight’s matchup, Ohio State could really use a marquee in-conference win to boost its tournament resume. And a road game against a ranked Iowa team could be just that.
With Ohio State’s win over Purdue at home Saturday, the Buckeyes are now winners of five of their last six matchups. The win brought Ohio State to .500 in conference play with a 7-7 Big Ten record as the team moved to 17-8 overall.
Despite their struggles early in conference play, the Buckeyes are the nation’s No. 17 team according to NET rankings. Additionally, Ohio State is ranked in the AP poll for the first time since mid-January, just scraping in at the No. 25 spot.
Saturday’s game was a pristine example of the balance Ohio State has achieved as the team looks to be getting hot at the right time. Forward Kyle Young led the Buckeyes in scoring with 16 points against the Boilermakers — a career high for the junior. Fellow junior forward Kaleb Wesson added 13 and sophomore guard Luther Muhammad poured in 11. That being said, just 11 points came off the bench.
In total, the Buckeyes shot just under 50% from the field, and were 9-of-20 from three-point range (45%). Ohio State outrebounded Purdue 33-26, and went even with the Boilermakers in turnovers with 16-all (though nine of the Buckeyes’ turnovers came in the first half). Impressively, the Ohio State defense held Purdue — which had been averaging more than 69 points per game — to just 52 points on the afternoon on 35% shooting.
The Iowa Hawkeyes, meanwhile, are third in the Big Ten standings and have risen to the No. 20 spot in the latest AP poll. With an 18-8 overall record, including a 9-6 mark in-conference, the Hawkeyes are also 29th in the NET rankings. Iowa is 12-1 at home, once again exhibiting the reality of home court advantage in the Big Ten this season.
Despite what fans might be familiar with on the football field, Iowa basketball actually boasts the Big Ten’s most prolific scoring offense, which is averaging 78.2 points per game (ironically, the Hawkeyes are 13th in the conference in scoring defense, allowing 71.7 points per game defensively on 43.1% shooting). That scoring effort is led by junior center Luka Garza, whose 23.7 points per game not only lead the conference but also make the Hawkeyes one of the Big Ten’s most formidable threats in the paint. So far this season, teams have been seemingly unable to stop the 6-foot-11 center from scoring from inside as Garza has been shooting just under 56% from the field. Garza’s also no slouch from range, connecting on nearly 39% from beyond the arc. As might be expected from the big man, Garza also leads his team in rebounding, pulling down 9.7 boards per game.
Garza has been starting for the Hawkeyes since his freshman season, but this year is when he has truly found his rhythm on the court. In fact, Garza has been held to single-digit scoring just once this season (nine points in Iowa’s loss to San Diego State) and under 20 just six times. However, while containing the big man has its advantages, defending the rest of the team seems to have proven a better strategy for opponents. Garza’s two highest-scoring games of the season — 38 points against Indiana, 34 versus Penn State and 44 against Michigan — both resulted in losses for the Hawkeyes.
So who are those players around Garza? Leading the way is sophomore guard Joe Wieskamp, who is averaging nearly 15 points per game. Freshman guard CJ Fredrick has also come on strong in his first season, pouring in nearly 11 points per game on 50% shooting.
Not only is Iowa a threat in the paint, but three-point shooting has also been strong all season for the Hawkeyes, with Iowa ranked third in the Big Ten while shooting 35% from range. However, that skill took something of a step back when CJ Fredrick got hurt against Indiana last week. Before his injury, Fredrick has been shooting nearly 47% from three-point range – best on the team. Leading the offensive backcourt is sophomore point guard (and son of the coach) Connor McCaffrey, whose 4.3 assist-to-turnover ratio leads the nation.
Also notably absent for the Hawkeyes is senior guard Jordan Bohannon, who is seeking a medical redshirt to return in the 2020-21 season following early season hip surgery. In his previous three seasons, Bohannon had averaged nearly 40% shooting from the field. Additionally, Connor McCaffrey’s brother, Patrick, a power forward on the team, is likely on the way to a medical redshirt of his own due to residual effects cancer treatments received years ago.
On the sidelines, the Hawkeyes are led by head coach and prolific yeller, Fran McCaffrey. McCaffrey is celebrating his 10th season at the helm in Iowa City, having amassed a 192-140 overall and 87-92 in-conference record.
Most recently, the Hawkeyes, who were without Fredrick, earned a gritty, 58-55 win over Minnesota in Minneapolis. Garza’s 24 points led all scorers, while Wieskamp was held to just two on 1-for-7 shooting. In all, Iowa shot 41% from the field while holding the Gophers to 36%.
Ohio State 44.5%
In order to win, the Buckeyes must do something that few teams have been able to manage this season: contain Garza. For Iowa, Fredrick’s injury means the Hawkeyes will be relying on Wieskamp on the perimeter. When Fredrick is healthy, Iowa has a highly-balanced offense between Fredrick’s outside shooting and Garza’s power down low (which, again, is difficult to stop on its own). With the injury to Fredrick, the Buckeyes have one less outside threat to worry about, and can focus more on defending Garza inside.
Additionally, Ohio State has to play a clean game. The Hawkeyes share the ball effectively, averaging 17.3 assists per game and boasting a league-high team assist-to-turnover ratio (1.4). Iowa also capitalizes on the mistakes of others, connecting on more than 74% of their free throw attempts.
The Buckeyes have six games remaining in the regular season, including three road matchups and three home. After tonight’s road game, Ohio State returns home to face No. 7 Maryland. While both games are winnable, given the Buckeyes seem to have found their rhythm at long last, Ohio State could really use that marquee win to silence its doubters. And it may as well come sooner than later.