Big Ten basketball is heating up just in time for the postseason, as the top teams in the nation and the conference are jockeying for position in a hotly-contested league. Making matters more interesting, those top teams — Illinois, Iowa, Michigan and Ohio State — ended up scheduled in something of a round robin to close out the final couple weeks of the regular season. Continuing in that vein, the No. 4 Ohio State Buckeyes (18-6, 12-6) return to Columbus to face No. 9 Iowa (17-7, 11-6) at 4 p.m. ET on CBS.
As it stands, Ohio State is now third in the Big Ten standings, 2.5 games back from projected top-seed Michigan, with Illinois in second place and one game back from the Wolverines. Here’s where things get interesting: This afternoon’s matchup will essentially solidify third place, since Iowa is just half a game behind the Buckeyes, currently sitting at fourth in the conference standings.
The past week has not been kind to Ohio State, which is on a two-game skid after falling to Michigan Sunday and Michigan State Thursday in consecutive matchups. The Buckeyes hadn’t lost two-straight games all season, and are looking to avoid an unprecedented third loss in a row.
Ohio State had been hot heading into their matchup with Michigan last Sunday, and played one of the team’s best games of the season despite the 92-87 loss. The Buckeyes had been favored against Michigan State in their subsequent game Thursday night, but ultimately fell in a down-to-the-wire game, 71-67. Michigan State had had a lot to play for Thursday night, as the Spartans were fighting for their chance at an NCAA Tournament berth after a lackluster conference slate that’s just begun to turn around.
The narrow margin of the game was apparent even from the opening minutes. Michigan State led by 11-6 early in the half, but Ohio State started to come into its own when junior forward Aaron Henry, the de facto leader for Michigan State, sat with two early fouls. The Buckeyes controlled the remainder of the period, and went to the break leading by five points. Midway through the second half, that lead jumped to nine, but Ohio State couldn’t quite pull away.
Then, with 2:23 remaining in the game, Michigan State took their first lead since the game’s opening minutes on two made free throws from sophomore forward Malik Hall. The Buckeyes wouldn’t regain the lead again, as the Spartans made their free throws and controlled the ball down the stretch.
The Buckeyes had a shot with just under 13 seconds left after a rare missed free throw from Michigan State, but couldn’t capitalize on an attempt from junior guard Duane Washington Jr. Ohio State ended the game without its coach, after Chris Holtmann was ejected following his second technical foul of the evening after arguing with officials.
Sophomore forward E.J. Liddell once again led the Buckeyes in scoring with 18 points on the night. After a career game against Michigan, Washington had a still-impressive 17 points. Senior guard C.J. Walker continued to be a spark off the bench, adding an even dozen points of his own. Musa Jallow, starting in place of the injured Kyle Young, who missed the game due to concussion protocols, was largely a non-factor, with zero points and zero attempts in 32 minutes.
It was Ohio State’s lowest offensive output since the Buckeyes’ loss to Purdue Jan. 20. After shooting 53% from the field against Michigan, Ohio State connected on just 44% versus Michigan State, and under 29% from range. Michigan State didn’t shoot much greater — 48% overall and just 27% on three-pointers — but the Spartans made the shots down the stretch that counted. Michigan State outrebounded the Buckeyes 34-27, and had 19 assists to Ohio State’s 14.
Even with the loss against Michigan State, the season is not over. The Buckeyes still have a lot to play for, and even a shot at a top seed in the NCAA Tournament still isn’t out of reach for Ohio State. The Buckeyes still have two chances in the regular season alone to boost their tournament resume, and a strong performance in the Big Ten Tournament (maybe even a win in a rematch over Michigan?) would go a long way to securing a No. 1 seed.
While it’s certainly harder to beat a team for a second time in a season, the Buckeyes have already beaten both their remaining regular season opponents — Iowa and Illinois — previously this year.
Last time out versus Iowa, the Buckeyes emerged with an 89-85 victory over the then-eighth-ranked Hawkeyes. Like last Sunday’s back and forth matchup against Michigan, the previous outing against Iowa featured frequent (18) lead changes as neither team was able to gain a dominant position over the other.
In that game, Iowa led 61-50 in the second half, but the Buckeyes rallied with a huge run to take the lead and seal the win. Ohio State’s defense stepped up in a major way at the tail end of the second half, holding Iowa to just two points from the field in the final four minutes.
Liddell, Young and Washington had 16 points apiece to lead the Buckeyes in scoring in the first round against the Hawkeyes. And speaking of that Ohio State defense, senior forward Luka Garza, Iowa’s leading scorer, was held to 16 points — more than 10 below his season average.
Both teams shot out of their minds from range, connecting on 44% of their shots from behind the arc. For Ohio State, that effort was led by Washington and junior forward Justin Ahrens, who had three three-pointers apiece. It was also an enormously efficient game, with each team turning the ball over just six times apiece. The Buckeyes outrebounded Iowa 43-36, and had four blocks to none from the Hawkeyes, but the pair were evenly matched in many other statistical categories, including assists (20), steals (4) and free throw percentage.
Iowa, meanwhile, is certainly looking to shake the memory of its last performance. In the first game of the doubleheader on ESPN Thursday which also featured Ohio State’s matchup, the Hawkeyes fell 79-57 to Michigan in Ann Arbor.
While the game was close in the first half, with the Wolverines leading by three, Iowa couldn’t keep pace after a stifling defensive effort from the Wolverines, with the home team outscoring the Hawkeyes 47-28 in the second half. Garza led the Hawkeyes in scoring with 16 points on the night (again, well below his season average), while senior guard Jordan Bohannon added 13. Bench production was a problem for the Hawkeyes, with just eight points against the Wolverines.
The Hawkeyes shot an abysmal 36% from the field, and a below-average 32% from three-point range. Iowa pulled down 32 rebounds to Michigan’s 41, and had a mere four assists to the Wolverine’s 13. In another uncharacteristic move, Iowa had more turnovers than its opponents, totaling nine compared to seven for Michigan. These stats are uncommon for the Hawkeyes we’ve seen this season, and Fran McCaffrey’s squad will certainly be looking to get things back on track this afternoon.
While the transitive property does not apply in sport, the fact Ohio State played Michigan super close while Iowa struggled to stay afloat for two halves could indicate that the Buckeyes may have an edge over the Hawkeyes when comparing common opponents. But, of course, that’s not the full story.
Ohio State faces the tall order of defending the nation’s leading scorer in Garza, who is averaging an NCAA-best 24.3 points per game. While the Buckeyes demonstrated effective containment in their previous matchup, more recent challenges with big men should be a red flag. Ohio State struggled to defend Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson in the post last week, and will be hard pressed to stop another giant center who has consistently been one of the best players in the conference for the past four seasons. However, the Hawkeyes will be without sophomore forward Jack Nunge, who’s been playing behind Garza, and who experienced a season-ending knee injury against Michigan Thursday.
But that’s not all. In addition to Garza’s down-low threat, Iowa has proven to be a challenge to defend from range, and something Ohio State has had challenges containing. Last time out against the Buckeyes, Bohannon, Nunge and junior forward Joe Wieskamp each connected for four three-pointers. Wieskamp, in fact, has shot just under 60% from range in his last 11 games.
On that note, the Hawkeyes are benefiting from a host of veteran talent. Garza and Bohannon seem like they’ve been in Iowa City forever. Garza became Iowa’s all-time leading scorer just last week against Penn State, while Bohannon is just three assists shy of being the all-time program leader in that category. Bohannon also boasts one of the nation’s top assist-to-turnover ratios at 3.31. Wieskamp, just a season behind, is on track to be a similar statistical leader.
That veteran talent certainly comes with advantages. As we saw in the last matchup with Iowa, the Hawkeyes don’t tend to make a lot of mistakes. Iowa is second in the Big Ten behind Wisconsin in turnovers per game with 9.7.
The Hawkeyes have also recently demonstrated an ability to stay in games with good defense. While it took a step back against Michigan, Iowa’s defense has been stout down the final stretch of the season, with the Hawkeyes holding their previous five opponents to under 70 points apiece.
There’s been a common theme here, however, and that’s that the Hawkeyes struggled in many of their usual areas of advantage against Michigan. And for many, Ohio State was able to contain or mitigate in their earlier matchup. The Buckeyes are favored by two this afternoon, consistent with how narrow recent games have been for Ohio State.
Iowa owns the all-time series against Ohio State 79-77, but the Buckeyes have a chance to narrow and possibly eliminate the gap assuming a meeting in the postseason. Of course, the Buckeyes (go figure) have a commanding advantage when playing at Value City Arena (49-27).
The season isn’t over yet. Both teams still have a lot to play for, and both are looking to avoid a skid at the worst possible time ahead of the postseason. For the Buckeyes, hope remains for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, which still isn’t even out of their control to achieve. However, to get there, Chris Holtmann’s team has to move on from last week’s narrative of narrow losses and get another win for its others impressive resume this afternoon against Iowa.
ESPN BPI: Iowa 51.8%
Time: 4 p.m. ET