Just a month ago, this Ohio State-Duke matchup looked pretty even on paper. The Buckeyes (4-2) entered the season at No. 17 in the AP Poll, while the now- No. 1 Blue Devils (7-0) debuted at No. 9. Ohio State returned starters E.J. Liddell, Justice Sueing, Kyle Young, and a handful of role players. Duke brought back Jeremy Roach, Wendell Moore, and Mark Williams, while adding “diaper dandy” freshmen Trevor Keels and Paolo Banchero.
Duke has more talent on the roster, but a young team playing on the road in front of a sold-out crowd can get iffy. On top of that, Ohio State looked every bit of a top-25 team in the making. Unspectacular perhaps, but a solid offensive team with room for improvement on the defensive end. In the very least, you could’ve called it a coin flip.
But the events of the first four weeks of this season have turned tonight’s game into a completely different event. The top-ranked Blue Devils beat No. 9 Kentucky to start the season, and last week knocked off then- No. 1 Gonzaga (now No. 3) to swipe the top spot from them in the AP Poll.
Coach K is in the midst of his farewell tour. Paolo Banchero looks every bit as good as we thought he’d be. The Blue Devils are extremely tall and will have mismatches all over the floor, and they’ll look to take advantage of every one tonight at the Schott.
Goliath, meet David.
Ohio State, on the other hand, has already lost Justice Sueing, Eugene Brown, and Seth Towns for extended periods of time this season — and none of them will be available tonight. The playbook has been simplified down to “Get E.J. the ball” more often than not, and they still have trouble with opposing teams’ length at times. They lost on a buzzer beater to Florida last week, and were soundly beaten by in-state rival Xavier the week before that. With a loss tonight, the Buckeyes would fall to 4-3 on the season.
Safe to say this is a win Chris Holtmann would really like to pick up if at all possible.
What once appeared to be an intriguing, relatively evenly-matched game now has a clear underdog. During Chris Holtmann’s first season, Ohio State upset No. 1 Michigan State at home. As a program, the Buckeyes are 9-10 all-time against AP No. 1 teams. Can they bring that record back to .500 and channel that same energy from 2018?
I’m not so sure, but if it is going to happen, a few guys will need to step up in ways they simply have not at this point in the season. It won’t be easy — and it may not be possible at all — but here’s what Ohio State needs to do to give themselves a fighting chance at knocking off those blue goblins from Durham:
Do not get called for another technical.
Historically, Holtmann has been one of the more mild-mannered coaches in the conference, and his go-to stress relieving method during a game has always been to slap the ever-loving hell out of the scorer’s table. But during the Fort Meyers Tip-Off, he was assessed technical fouls against Seton Hall and Florida — both games.
Ohio State went on to beat the No. 25 Pirates by just three points on a buzzer-beater, but those free throws Seton Hall were gifted clearly had an impact on the final score. The Buckeyes lost to Florida by the same sword just two days later. Could Florida have won in the same fashion if they were two points down instead of tied? Sure, but in close games like this, why give your opponent freebies?
Points will be hard to come by tonight, and Ohio State could spend some time trailing. In the interest of keeping it close, it’s probably best the folks sitting on the bench don’t gift Duke any free points — just take it out on the scorer’s table.
Keep doing exactly what you’re doing.
Liddell has put up eye-popping, spectacular, gaudy numbers so far this season. His performance (22.5 PPG, 6.2 REB, 3.8 BLK) is probably unsustainable, but until he levels off a little bit, Ohio State needs to keep riding the hot hand.
Asking Liddell to “have the best game of his life” is a bit much, because in all honesty he is playing the best basketball of his life right now. Sure, if Liddell goes nuclear and drops 35 tonight Ohio State’s chances to win certainly go up. But the Buckeyes won’t win if Liddell doesn’t at least chip in as much as he has been to this point, which is a high bar in itself.
Ohio State needs Liddell to give them at least 20 points, 8-10 rebounds, and a blocked shot or two tonight to win. They simply don’t have the supporting cast to win otherwise.
Make tonight your coming out party.
If you were a fly on the wall in Duke’s locker room tonight, tasked with infiltrating the Blue Devils’ gameplan and bringing that intelligence back to Holtmann, you’d probably see one big name written on the dry erase board, circled several times with exclamation points — Liddell’s.
Around Liddell’s name — perhaps in smaller writing and clearly with less emphasis — you’d see others: Justin Ahrens, Zed Key, Meechie Johnson, so on and so forth. Know what name you probably won’t see too much in the opposing scouring report?
The Louisiana-native averaged 17 points per game last season at Louisiana-Lafayette and shot the three-ball at a 40% clip — an elite mark. This season, he’s averaging 0.8 points per game in just under six minutes per night. He’s having trouble adjusting to higher-level competition and finding his place in the rotation, sure.
But to win this game, the Buckeyes are going to need some weird stuff to happen. Russell — someone Duke likely isn’t scouting too much — scoring 10-12 points against the No. 1 team in the country would be about as weird as it gets.
Draw early fouls on Paolo Banchero.
Diaper dandy Paolo Banchero is going to be a big problem. At 6-foot-10 and nearly 260 pounds, it’s criminal that this man runs around the perimeter as much as he does. Due to his mobility, it’s likely that Liddell will draw the initial assignment on the possible No. 1 overall draft pick (rather than Young or Key).
Despite playing nearly 30 minutes per game, Banchero is averaging just 1.4 fouls per game. Whether he’s a great defender or not remains to be seen, but in the very least he avoids fouling, and thus avoids fouling out or getting stuck on the bench in foul trouble for long stretches. The best ability has — and will always be — availability.
Liddell presents a similar challenge, however, with his ability to score on all three levels. There are few players in the country with Liddell’s size/shooting combination, so Banchero will be tested. If Liddell can attack Banchero and get him in early foul trouble, it will go a long way towards the Buckeyes’ chances.
Meechie Johnson & Malaki Branham
Don’t beat yourselves.
Holtmann knows his young guards are going to make mistakes. Branham is the youngest player on Ohio State’s roster, and Johnson is playing his first full season of college basketball. “In some ways I want them to make mistakes.” Holtmann said following Ohio State’s 89-58 win over Bowling Green two weeks ago. “I want them to be in positions where they’re making mistakes, I really do... It’s about them learning from those right now.”
Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann on the younger guards making mistakes.— Lantern Sports (@LanternSports) November 17, 2021
“In some ways, I want them to make mistakes.” pic.twitter.com/0HFsVQId3m
While they will make mistakes, Ohio State’s young guard tandem will have to try and set their youthfulness aside tonight against the Blue Devils, because there simply is no room for error. None.
Through six games, Johnson is shooting 34% from the floor and is taking the second-most shots per game on the team (7.3), behind only Liddell’s 14. He is averaging 1.7 assists and 2.3 turnovers per game while playing 23 minutes per contest.
Branham is shooting 33% from the floor and averaging 5.8 points per game, while dishing out 2 assists per game vs 1.8 turnovers. Not disastrous, but not good either. He is logging 21.8 minutes per game.
Ohio State doesn’t need Johnson or Branham to have out-of-body experiences to win tonight. What they need is for the freshmen guards to clean things up around the edges and not beat themselves. A combined 20 points from the two buddings stars, with limited turnovers, is exactly what the doctor is ordering on this fine Tuesday evening.
The game is going to move quickly and could get overwhelming. How will they respond?