The No. 7 Ohio State Buckeyes (15-4, 9-4), who were picked to finish somewhere in the middle of the Big Ten conference before the season began, have officially left the “upstart” and “surprising” tags in the dust and have firmly thrust themselves into contention for a Big Ten championship. On the heels of four-straight wins — including victories over No. 8 Iowa and No. 10 Wisconsin on the road— the Buckeyes are now in third place in the B1G, with three seemingly winnable games coming up against Maryland, Indiana, and Penn State.
Now, this Ohio State team is not without flaws. They are concerningly thin at the guard spots after Abel Porter — a transfer from Utah State — was forced to retire before the season began due to a heart condition. CJ Walker, Ohio State’s starting point guard, is playing through torn ligaments in his right (non-shooting) hand, which cost him four games. Walker hasn’t been quite as productive as he was pre-injury, as he’s averaging 6.7 points, 2.7 rebounds, and 4.3 assists in 25 minutes per game since his return, all Buckeye victories.
When Walker became unavailable, the man Ohio State needed to step up in his absence was Jimmy Sotos, a transfer from Bucknell who scored 11.5 points per game last season for the Bison while dishing out nearly four assists per game. He was playing less than 10 minutes per game for Ohio State this season, but immediately entered the starting lineup against Rutgers on Jan. 9 in Walker’s absence. He scored six points and had four assists that day, but suffered a separated shoulder in the closing minutes of the game. On Wednesday, Chris Holtmann informed the media that Sotos would have season-ending surgery on that shoulder.
To help shore up their guard depth, Chris Holtmann went the unconventional route and offered Meechie Johnson — one of Ohio State’s recruits in the class of 2021 — the chance to reclassify and join the team. Johnson had already graduated from high school and therefore was eligible to play right away, if he wished. Johnson, who is still 17, had his first practice with the Buckeyes on Jan. 3 and then played four minutes against Rutgers six days later, without registering any stats or shot attempts (welcome to Club Trillion, Meechie).
While Johnson has been shaky at times (and has knocked down a few huge shots as well, to his credit) and Walker is obviously playing compromised, the Buckeyes have been able to lean on the likes of Duane Washington Jr. and Justice Sueing to bring the ball up the court if need be. Ohio State’s backcourt is stronger than it was one month ago, and for now seems to have stabilized.
Ohio State also does not possess a true center — and it doesn’t look like they’ll have one in the coming years, either. 6-foot-8 Kyle Young and 6-foot-7 E.J. Liddell have done an admirable job containing opposing bigs this year, including holding future National Player of the Year Luka Garza to a season-low 16 points and future first-round pick Kofi Cockburn to just 15. Holtmann likes having the versatility of Young, Liddell and others, but sooner or later their lack of size is going to hurt them — even if it isn’t until next season. Neither of Ohio State’s next two recruiting classes (2021 and 2022) include a legitimate post player.
Fortunately, these issues shouldn’t bother the Buckeyes against Maryland (10-9, 4-8) on Monday night. Currently sitting in 11th-place in the B1G, the Terrapins NCAA tournament hopes are on life support and any ideas of competing in the top of the conference have vanished. Monday’s game against the Buckeyes is one they need to have if they plan on playing in late March, but this game (and their postseason chances) are both a longshot.
After starting the season 4-0, Maryland then went 2-6 in their next eight games, stumbling to a 1-5 start in Big Ten play. They’re 3-3 since then, including wins over Illinois, Minnesota, and Purdue, all of whom were ranked at the time. The Terrapins have won road games at Minnesota, Illinois, and Wisconsin already this year, which will help their resume come tournament time if they can finish the season on a high note.
Maryland’s starting lineup consists of four guards — Eric Ayala, Aaron Wiggins, Hakim Hart, and Darryl Morsell — and one post player, 6-foot-7 sophomore Donta Scott. Ironically enough, Scott is their best three-point shooter on the team at 45.2%, with the four guards all shooting it below 35%. Head coach Mark Turgeon slides his players around into a myriad of different lineups, with the ability to match up most of his players with anybody on the opposing team. Maryland’s entire lineup is between 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-7, allowing them to mix and match where necessary.
Their leading scorer, Eric Ayala, is averaging 14.4 points per game. Ayala was a target for Chris Holtmann in the 2018 recruiting class, with the Buckeyes having offered him a scholarship as well as being one of the final schools he visited before committing to Maryland.
While there are benefits of playing mostly “position-less” basketball like Maryland does, the drawback is that roles are undefined. Maryland does not have a “traditional” point guard, because Ayala, Wiggins, and Morsell are all combo guards. In essence, they’re all taller Duane Washington Jr.’s. Each of them can be trusted to bring the ball up the floor and captain the offense on occasion, but none of them have seized that role full-time. The trio of Ayala, Wiggins, and Morsell all average over two assists per game, but no Terrapin dishes out more than 2.8 assists per game. As a team, Maryland averages 13.4 assists per game to 11.2 turnovers, good for just a 1.2:1 assist to turnover ratio.
By running four guards out every game, Maryland puts themselves at a disadvantage on the boards as well. Their 33.4 rebounds per game is last in the Big Ten, and their not-so nice 6.9 offensive rebounds per game also ranks dead last. In comparison, Ohio State is ninth in the B1G in offensive rebounds (10.4) and sixth in overall rebounds (37.6).
The Buckeyes have done a superb job out-hustling much bigger teams for rebounds this season to give themselves second chances, as well as cleaning it up on the defensive glass to limit second-chance opportunities for their opponents. On Monday night they’ll face a Maryland team that does not have a size advantage over them, so the Buckeyes will need to rev up their motors and out-work the conference’s lowest scoring team (69.7 PPG).
Believe it or not, Maryland moves at a slower pace than Ohio State, ranking 306th in KenPom’s adjusted tempo ranking. The Buckeyes, in comparison, are No. 266. They’re also one of the worst free throw-shooting teams in the conference, knocking down just 68% of their tries from the charity stripe. In comparison, Ohio State connects on 76.3% of their free throws, and has taken a Big Ten-leading 439 free throw attempts through 19 games. While the two teams aren’t complete opposites, the Buckeyes seem to excel at some of the things Maryland struggles with. And Maryland excels at.....very little
The last time these teams met it was in Columbus on Feb. 23, 2020, with the then-25th ranked Buckeyes getting the best of No. 7 Maryland, 79-72. Aaron Wiggins led Maryland with 20 points off the bench. Ayala, Scott, and Morsell combined for 34 points as well, but ex-Buckeye and current Arizona State guard Luther Muhammad had a career day, scoring 22 points including four three-pointers. Only five current Buckeyes played in that game that took place less than one year ago.
The Buckeyes seem to have the Terrapins outmatched in nearly every area of the game. Rebounding, free throw shooting, points per game, and offensive efficiency all fall in favor of Ohio State. Maryland has them beat by just a hair in overall field goal percentage (45.7% to 45.6%) and three-point shooting (35.1% to 35.0%), but Ohio State has cleaned up the offensive boards so much better than the Terrapins, giving them additional opportunities that Maryland simply is not getting. Because of the rebounding disparity, Ohio State is taking nearly four more shots per game than the Terrapins. Look for Chris Holtmann to make that a point of emphasis on Monday night.
After having to deal with the likes of John Harrar, Micah Potter, and Luka Garza over the last several games, E.J. Liddell will finally get a matchup with someone closer to his size. At 6-foot-7 and 230 pounds, Donta Scott has a very similar build to Liddell. While Liddell should have more space to work in the post against Scott, Scott has the mobility to move with Liddell if the Buckeye big man tries to extend his range a bit, as he has in recent games. While lumbering giants like Cockburn and Harrar weren’t particularly interested in wandering out to the elbow or three-point line to defend Liddell, Scott will have absolutely no problem chasing Liddell around. The cat-and-mouse game should be fun to watch.
Ohio State-Maryland games are almost guaranteed to be nerve-wracking, back and forth affairs, but for the first time in awhile, I don’t think this will be the case. This year’s Ohio State team plays well on the road — maybe even better than they do at home. The metrics give Ohio State a big advantage here, and the eye test even more so. It may still be close at halftime, but it won’t be for much longer.
Finally, why in the world are we tipping off at 9:00 p.m.? We can deal with it once I suppose, but let’s not make this a thing, Big Ten. Us old folks have a bed time to adhere to.
ESPN BPI: Iowa 67.6%
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