After surviving Monday night’s battle against Seton Hall, Ohio State will face another tough opponent tonight when they take on Florida in the championship game of the Rocket Mortgage Fort Myers Tip-Off. The Buckeyes beat the Pirates 79-76 on Monday thanks to a three-pointer from Meechie Johnson Jr. with two seconds left in the game.
Ohio State went into the halftime break with a 40-35 lead and never trailed in the second half, leading Seton Hall by as many as 12 points. The Buckeyes couldn’t keep the Pirates from getting back into the game though, as a Jamir Harris layup with 14 seconds to go tied the game at 76, setting the stage for Johnson’s heroics.
E.J. Liddell continued his incredible early season play, leading the Buckeyes in scoring with 28 points. The junior also swatted three shots on the defensive end, giving him 18 blocked shots through just five games this year. Liddell now has blocked at least three shots in four of Ohio State’s five games this season. In 29 games last season, Liddell blocked 31 shots, so at this pace the Buckeye big man should set a new career high before the calendar turns to 2022.
Being on the road around Thanksgiving isn’t something that happens very often for the Buckeyes, as this is just the sixth Thanksgiving week tournament outside of Columbus that Ohio State has appeared in since 2003. The last time Chris Holtmann took his team on the road around the holiday came back in 2017, when Ohio State played out in Portland in the PK80 Invitational.
Following Ohio State’s win over Seton Hall on Monday, Florida beat Cal 80-60 to setup the showdown with the Buckeyes tonight. The Gators pushed their record to 4-0 this season, and are currently ranked 23rd in the country. Ohio State and Florida have met on the hardwood 13 previous times, with the Buckeyes owning an 8-5 edge in the series. The last time the two teams played came back in the second round of the 2016 NIT, where Florida won 74-66 in Columbus.
Florida was paced in the game by Colin Castleton, who scored 16 points and grabbed eight rebounds. Tyree Appleby added 15 points, while Myreon Jones scored 13 points, and Phlandrous Fleming Jr. added 11 points off the bench. Cal held a 15-13 lead on Florida with just over 10 minutes to go in the first half before Appleby hit three free throws to give the Gators a 16-15 lead. Florida wouldn’t trail again in the game, opening up a 46-27 lead at halftime.
Liddell, Zed Key, and Kyle Young will have their hands full trying to slow down a couple of the talented Florida big men. Castleton is averaging nearly a double-double this season, averaging 17 points and 9.8 rebounds per game. The senior forward’s best performance of the early season came against rival Florida State, where he scored 15 points and was credited with 16 rebounds.
Teaming with Castleton is Anthony Duruji, who had scored in double figures in each of Florida’s first three games before scoring just seven points on Monday night. With over 100 games under his belt with the Gators, Durjui has went up against some of the best forwards in the country over the years.
Not only do the Gators have a couple of seniors that they lean on heavily in the front court, Florida also has plenty of experience in the backcourt with senior guards Tyree Appleby and Myreon Jones. Appleby started his career at Cleveland State before transferring to Florida prior to the 2020-21 season. Not only is Appleby closing in on 400 assists for his career, as he is just five away from that mark, he already has recorded 1,229 points so far in his time between Cleveland State and Florida.
A name that is going to be familiar to many Buckeyes is Myreon Jones, who transferred to Florida from Penn State prior to this season. Jones has seen some success lately against Ohio State, scoring at least 10 points in each of the last three games he has played against the Buckeyes. Jones is currently Florida’s second-leading scorer, averaging 12.5 points per game this year.
Even though Ohio State is 4-1 this year, we haven’t been able to get a true read on the team, since there have been pieces missing early this season. The biggest loss the Buckeyes have had to deal with this year has been that of Justice Sueing, who has only played 31 minutes over two games this season. The senior is out indefinitely due to an abdominal injury. Last season, Sueing averaged 10.7 points and 5.5 rebounds per game.
While Liddell is doing a lot of the heavy lifting for Ohio State this year, it’s not like he isn’t getting any help. The Buckeyes have four players averaging between 8.8 and 9.8 points per game. One of those players is Justin Ahrens, who hit five three-pointers and scored 17 points in the win over Seton Hall on Monday. Ahrens is hitting 52% of his three-pointers this year, and is a huge reason the Buckeyes have hit at least eight three-pointers in each of the last four games.
A fun matchup in tonight’s game should be seeing Myreon Jones square off with fellow Penn State transfer guard Jamari Wheeler, who has been the glue guy for Ohio State so far this year. While Wheeler isn’t going to light up the scoreboard, he does so much more to put others in positions to excel. Currently Wheeler is leading the team with 4.2 assists per game. Wheeler is also a menace defensively, giving a strong presence on the defensive end in the backcourt to compliment what Liddell, Key, and Young do in the paint.
As tough as Monday night’s game against Seton Hall was, tonight’s game against Florida is going to be even tougher. While Florida might not have a pure scorer like Jared Rhoden, who dropped 29 points on the Buckeyes, the Gators do have quite a collection of veterans, who are all averaging over double figures in scoring this season.
The thing that Ohio State could have some trouble with is if Liddell gets into foul trouble during the game. Liddell has done a good job so far this season staying on the court, but the physicality could be ratcheted up against the Gators, which could have some of these fears become a reality. If Liddell is forced to the bench for an extended period of time, it’s hard to see where Ohio State might get consistent offense from.
If Ohio State was at full strength for this game, there would be a little more optimism about the Buckeyes winning. There’s no doubt that Ohio State is talented enough to challenge in the Big Ten and to make a run in the NCAA Tournament, they just might have to eat a few losses early in the season to learn from. Malaki Branham still hasn’t found his rhythm yet in the college game, while Meechie Johnson is definitely making strides but it’s hard to forget he hasn’t even been with the team for a full year.
If these teams meet again in March the result will likely be different, but right now this feels like a game that the Buckeyes fall just short in. Chris Holtmann’s team will give a strong effort that they can build on ahead of next week’s game against Duke. Unfortunately Florida’s just a little bit better right now, despite another strong performance from E.J. Liddell.
Time: 8:30 p.m. ET
TV: Fox Sports 1