After a bit of a slow start in conference play, the No. 15 Ohio State Buckeyes (11-3, 5-3) have now won four of their last five games, including big impressive wins over Rutgers and Illinois on the road. The Big Ten is the toughest conference in college basketball this season, and still Chris Holtmann’s team finds themselves in fourth place with a chance to move into a tie for third with a win on Tuesday against the Purdue Boilermakers (10-5, 5-3).
In their last time out, then-No. 21 Ohio State upset No. 14 Illinois 87-81 in Champaign behind a huge day from E.J. Liddell and a full-team effort on the defensive end. The sophomore forward dropped a career-high 26 points, including a 4-of-7 afternoon from beyond the arc, while adding seven boards as his team outplayed the Illini despite the Buckeyes being without both of their point guards. Ohio State’s 52% clip from three-point range was its best performance of the season, with Liddell, Justin Ahrens and Seth Towns accounting for nine of the team’s 11 makes from deep.
Ohio State will still be without starting point guard C.J. Walker on Tuesday against Purdue, Holtmann told the media in his Monday press conference, as the senior is scheduled to get his injured hand evaluated sometime today. Jimmy Sotos, who missed Saturday’s contest with a shoulder injury, remains day-to-day and has not yet been ruled out, although it sounds unlikely he will play. As they have these past few games, the Buckeyes will need other guys to step up and fill the gaps in order for them to emerge victorious in their second meeting of the season with the Boilermakers.
The last time these two teams met was over a month ago, when Purdue came away with a 67-60 victory in West Lafayette in what was the first Big Ten matchup of the season for either school. Ohio State simply had no answers for forward Trevion Williams, one of the best passing bigs in the country, who finished just shy of a triple-double with 16 points, nine rebounds and eight assists. The Boilermakers also got a strong effort from junior guard Eric Hunter Jr., who dropped 15 points on an efficient 6-of-11 night from the field.
Ohio State did not have a good time shooting the rock at Mackey Arena, pouring in one of their worst performances of the season at the offensive end with an under-38% shooting percentage as a unit. Duane Washington Jr. had a particularly poor game, hitting just four of his 14 attempts from the floor — including a 2-of-9 effort from deep — as he finished with 13 points. Justice Sueing led the team with just 14 points, as no other players besides Sueing and Washington finished in double-figures. It also didn’t help that Ohio State was without Liddell, one of their best players all season long, who missed the game with a non-COVID illness.
A big reason for the Buckeyes’ struggles in that game came down to a lack of size. Before getting used to the physicality that the Big Ten was going to bring, Ohio State had a tough time amongst the tall trees like Williams (6-foot-10) and Zach Edey (7-foot-4) — especially without Liddell. The team has gotten much better at adapting to playing with a height disadvantage since then, as evidenced by their efforts against the 7-foot Kofi Cockburn last time out. You can’t make your players any taller than they are, but Ohio State has done a great job at playing strong and attacking the paint without fear in the face of much bigger defenders.
Ohio State has changed in more ways than one since that last meeting, including on a personnel basis. Since that game, the Buckeyes have seen the return of Seth Towns, as well as the debut of reclassified freshman Meechie Johnson.
Towns has continued to work his way back from a multi-year knee injury, but seems more and more healthy and confident with each passing game. He moved really well against Illinois, shedding the knee brace and dropping 11 points against the Illini. He gives Ohio State a little more size at 6-foot-8, and he is a tough guy to guard for opposing bigs as he is an excellent shooter from range. The former Ivy League Player of the Year can become a massive piece of this lineup as he continues to get closer to returning to his old form.
Johnson has been another important mid-season addition for Holtmann this year, especially at a time where Ohio State is decimated at the guard spot. A kid who should be playing his senior year in high school, Johnson made his debut against Northwestern three games ago, and has played more than 10 minutes in each of the past two contests. The 6-foot-2 Cleveland native is certainly not lacking in confidence, and has begun his Ohio State career a perfect 3-of-3 from downtown. With Walker’s prolonged absence, Johnson will likely continue to reap the benefits of additional minutes.
On the Purdue side of things, the Boilermakers have rattled off three-straight victories after dropping a pair of contests, ironically, to Rutgers and Illinois on the road. Escaping then-ranked Michigan State in a 55-54 affair in East Lansing, Matt Painter’s guys followed it up by easily dispatching Indiana on the road before returning home to take on a Penn State team coming off a two-week COVID-19 hiatus. They defeated the Nittany Lions 80-72 in their last time out on Sunday.
All five starters for Purdue scored in double-figures against PSU, led by 15 points by Sasha Stefanovic. Williams was great yet again, registering a double-double with 13 points and 11 rebounds, but the Boilermakers were putrid as a team hitting from long-range. Purdue knocked down just 6-of-32 from beyond the arc, but they were bailed out by Penn State’s 27 fouls, leading to 24 free points at the line for the home team. They scored 12 of their last 16 points at the charity stripe to secure the W and moved the Nittany Lions to 0-4 in conference.
Overall, Purdue is dead last in the conference in scoring at 71.7 points per game, but they are third in the Big Ten in scoring defense, allowing only 66.8 points per game. Despite all their size, the Boilermakers actually fall below Ohio State in rebounding, ranking ninth compared to the Buckeyes at No. 7. They also rank 13th of the 14 teams in the B1G in turnover margin at -2.13. It is pretty clear their bread is buttered on the defensive end, where Purdue is second in the conference in opponent field goal percentage at 30.7%.
While Purdue is largely the same team as they were the last time Ohio State faced them, the Buckeyes have gotten a face lift. In addition to having E.J. Liddell this time around, they also now have the added bonuses of Seth Towns and Meechie Johnson. These three guys combined are more than enough to offset the losses of C.J. Walker and likely Jimmy Sotos.
In addition to a change of personnel, the Buckeyes are much improved across the board since that first meeting. Their three-point shooting, which was dreadful to begin the year, has looked really solid over the past three games, hitting at above a 40% clip from downtown in each of the three contests. Despite not having a true point guard on the floor, Ohio State has distributed the ball well amongst its scorers, and has found a healthy mix of scoring in the paint as well as outside shooting. The Buckeyes don't have a go-to star on the offensive end, but Liddell and Washington have provided consistent offense all season long, and do so from different areas of the floor.
The absence of Liddell in the previous meeting was huge, and I think he will be the difference in this game. Ohio State will have to do a better job on Trevion Williams, but having the physical 6-foot-7 forward on the court will go a long way in improving in that area. Ohio State’s role players have really been producing at the offensive end, and it has helped Washington play much more loose and efficiently. The Buckeyes have gone 7-0 at home this season, and that record remains perfect as they push their win streak to four on Tuesday night.