Ohio State heads into the Big Ten Tournament facing some adversity. The Buckeyes enter today’s game with Minnesota having lost four straight games. If there is a little bit of a silver lining for Chris Holtmann’s team, it is that three of those losses have come against top-10 teams.
Last time out
The latest of those losses came on Saturday, when the Buckeyes fell to Illinois 73-68 at Value City Arena in their regular season finale. The loss was especially deflating because Ohio State held a 68-64 lead with just under four minutes to go in the game. The Buckeyes would go ice cold the rest of the way, failing to score another point.
Duane Washington Jr. was driving the struggle bus in crunch time, missing five shots during Ohio State’s scoreless drought. The junior would finish the game with 15 points, which is his average on the season, but the streaky shooter would hit just six of his 18 field goal attempts in the game. After breaking out of a slump that saw him fail to reach double figures in three straight games at the end of January, Washington has again struggled to find his shot lately, shooting just 16-of-44 from the field in the last three games.
Leading Ohio State against Illinois was E.J. Liddell, who finished with a team-high 19 points in the loss. The sophomore is averaging 16 points per game and 6.5 rebounds per contest, with both being the high marks on the Buckeye squad. Earlier this week Liddell was named First Team All-Big Ten by the coaches, while the media voted Liddell Second Team All-Big Ten. Of Ohio State’s last 10 games, Liddell has scored at least 15 points in nine of those contests.
To make a deep run in the Big Ten Tournament, as well as the NCAA Tournament, the Buckeyes are going to need more production from their trio of upperclassmen. Justice Sueing and Kyle Young have been banged up lately, which has been a factor in Ohio State’s losing streak. While Sueing has reached double figures in scoring in the last three games, he hasn’t been doing some of the little things lately that made the Buckeyes so tough prior to their losing skid. Over the last four games, Sueing has 15 total rebounds and one assist, which is a far cry from some of the numbers he was putting up when the Buckeyes were rolling.
Much like Sueing, Young hasn’t quite been himself lately. The senior from Canton suffered a concussion in the Michigan game, causing him to miss Ohio State’s next game, which was a loss at Michigan State. Not that Young was taking a bunch of shots prior to the injury, but in the last two games he has hit just two of his nine field goal attempts. The cold streak raises some eyebrows since Young has hit over 50% of his shots the last three years.
The X-factor for Ohio State the rest of the year is going to be CJ Walker. The Florida State transfer seemed to find some comfort coming off the bench for the Buckeyes, but Chris Holtmann reinserted Walker in the starting lineup following the Michigan State game after Justin Ahrens struggled. Even though Walker’s minutes on the floor haven’t really changed, something has been off lately. In the loss to Iowa, Walker turned the basketball over four times, which tied a season-high. Following the subpar performance against the Hawkeyes, Walker scored just seven points on Saturday against Illinois, marking the first time since the Iowa game in February that he failed to reach double figures in scoring.
Not only will Ohio State be looking to snap their winning streak today, they’ll also get a shot at some revenge when they take on the Minnesota Golden Gophers. In their lone meeting during the season, Minnesota had little trouble with the Buckeyes, beating Ohio State 77-60 in Minneapolis. The Golden Gophers led 43-37 at halftime, and weren’t threatened the rest of the way. Liam Robbins was a monster in the victory, scoring 27 points, grabbing 14 rebounds, and swatting five shots. Marcus Carr added 15 points, while Gabe Kalscheur scored 13 points.
The only real bright spot for Ohio State in the loss was Washington, who hit five of his seven three-point attempts, finishing with 21 points. E.J. Liddell was the only other Buckeye to reach double figures, scoring 10 points on just 3-of-11 shooting. Ohio State shot a lowly 31.1% from the field, and turned the basketball over 11 times. The loss did at least light a fire under the Buckeyes, who went on to win 10 of their next 11 games.
The good news for Ohio State is they likely won’t have to deal with a couple Minnesota players who were key to the victory effort of the Golden Gophers. Liam Robbins has missed the Minnesota’s last five games after suffering an ankle injury, however there is a chance he could return to the lineup on Thursday — albeit probably not at 100%. Potentially joining Robbins on the sidelines is Kalscheur, who has missed the last seven games with a broken finger.
The constant for Minnesota this year has been Marcus Carr. Not only was Carr named Associated Press First Team All-Big Ten, the guard was named Second Team All-Big Ten by the media, and Third Team All-Big Ten by the coaches. The most notable performance of the year for Carr came on Feb. 27th against Nebraska, when he scored 41 points in the loss to the Cornhuskers. Carr became just the fifth Golden Gopher to score 40 points in a game.
How Minnesota got here
Minnesota entered the Big Ten Tournament having lost seven-straight games, but they were able to not only snap that losing streak, but also move on to the second round with a 51-46 win over Northwestern. The Golden Gophers jumped out to a 16-2 lead in the first 12 minutes of the game before the Wildcats started clawing their way back into the contest. Richard Pitino’s team actually found themselves down 46-39 with just over four minutes to go before finishing the game on a 12-0 run.
While all eyes were on Carr in the game, Tre’ Williams was the star for Minnesota, finishing with a team-high 14 points. Jamal Mashburn Jr. scored 11 points in the victory, while Carr added 10 points. Eric Curry and Brandon Johnson were beasts on the boards for the Golden Gophers, finishing with 12 and 10 rebounds, respectively. Minnesota did struggle with turnovers in the win, giving the basketball to Northwestern a whopping 17 times.
Minnesota may come into this game a little looser. Not only do they have nothing to lose, but they are a little more familiar with playing at Lucas Oil Stadium after Wednesday night’s win over Northwestern. That still likely won’t be enough against an Ohio State team that is hungry to snap their recent slide.
With the Golden Gophers potentially missing two key players, they are going to have a short bench, which will be less than ideal against an Ohio State squad that can go nine-deep. It also won’t help Minnesota that they have to get back on the court less than 24 hours after expending a lot of energy against Northwestern.
If Robbins is unavailable, expect E.J. Liddell to continue his strong play, which he has displayed throughout his sophomore season. Since the loss to Minnesota, Liddell has done a great job at not only being a force down low, but mixing in some shooting from the perimeter to keep opponents on their toes. If Liddell can get his shot falling early, it will help open things up for some of the other Buckeyes, who will benefit from the increased attention that Liddell will demand.
The key for Ohio State is to not let Marcus Carr have one of those hero games, where he puts the team on the back and leads his team to victory. Don’t expect Carr to be as off from the field as he was against the Wildcats on Wednesday night, but with the Golden Gophers being shorthanded, the Buckeyes could commit more resources to slowing down Carr and get away from it.
Could we be seeing Richard Pitino’s last game with the Golden Gophers? There have been rumblings that Minnesota could be looking at making a change, but nothing has been finalized yet. The Golden Gophers could put together a spirited effort to rally around their coach, it’s just likely not going to be enough. Minnesota might hang around early, but the Buckeyes should be able to use their depth to pull away in the second half.
Approx 2:00 PM ET