Ohio State entered the Big Ten Tournament with a lot of questions to answer before the NCAA Tournament. Chris Holtmann’s team showed they are capable of making some noise in the big dance with their performance in Indianapolis last week. The Buckeyes not only beat Minnesota, Purdue, and Michigan to earn a spot in the Big Ten Tournament title game, but also pushed Illinois to the limit on Sunday.
After falling behind in the first half by 17 points, it looked like Ohio State might have ran out of gas in their fourth game in four days. The Buckeyes refused to give up though, cutting into the lead of the Fighting Illini and heading into the locker room at halftime trailing 40-35.
Following halftime, there were points in the second half when it looked like Illinois was about to run away with the victory, but Ohio State would not go away. The Buckeyes briefly took a lead late in the second half before the game was sent to overtime following a Justice Sueing three-point play with 24 seconds left.
Ohio State was up 81-80 in the extra session before Illinois took the lead for good with a pair of Kofi Cockburn free throws with 1:39 left. The Buckeyes would turn the ball over twice in the next minute, sealing their runner-up fate in this year’s Big Ten Tournament.
Even though the Buckeyes didn’t win the conference tournament, you could argue that Duane Washington Jr. was the best player in Indianapolis last week. Washington scored a career-high 32 points in the loss to Illinois, and finished the tournament with 92 points over Ohio State’s four games. The junior’s efforts allowed him to take over the team’s scoring lead from E.J. Liddell, as Washington is now averaging 16.3 points per game this year.
After impressing throughout the year. E.J. Liddell looked like he was running on empty in Indianapolis. Liddell shot just 18-of-57 from the field over Ohio State’s four games, and was a dreadful 3-of-16 shooting against Illinois. It’s not hard to understand why Liddell might have been exhausted towards the end of the Big Ten Tournament, as he was going up against Purdue’s Trevion Williams, Hunter Dickinson of Michigan, and Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn.
Not only did Liddell have to work against those talented bigs, he did it without Kyle Young by his side for the latter half of the Big Ten Tournament. Young scored 18 points in the first half against Purdue before taking an elbow to the head. Young was diagnosed with a concussion, which is his second in just a few weeks, and didn’t play the rest of the weekend. Head coach Chris Holtmann isn’t sure if Young will be able to return to the court this year, which would be a huge blow to am Ohio State squad that has struggled at times against teams with size.
A couple Buckeyes last week did find some of their form from earlier in the season that led the Buckeyes to a seven-game winning streak. Justice Sueing scored 22 points in the loss to Illinois, which is the Cal transfer’s season-high. What Sueing did well in a couple games was get to the free throw stripe. Sueing shot 11 free throws in the win over Minnesota, and nine in the loss to Illinois. The Buckeyes are going to need the junior to be aggressive as the pressure is going to ramp up even more.
A change Chris Holtmann made with the lineup for the Big Ten Tournament was to return Justin Ahrens to the starting lineup, and move CJ Walker to the bench to start the game. Even though Walker plays just as many minutes coming off the bench as he does when he is in the starting lineup, for some reason the Buckeyes seem to respond better with Walker coming off the bench. Walker closed out the Big Ten Tournament by tying his season-high with 16 points.
Ohio State will open up their 30th appearance in the NCAA Tournament with their first-ever meeting with Oral Roberts, who earned a spot in the Big Dance after winning the Summit League Tournament. The Golden Eagles will be making their sixth NCAA Tournament appearance, and first since 2008 when they were a 13-seed and lost to Pitt.
Oral Roberts has a 2-5 record all-time in the NCAA Tournament, with both of those wins coming in 1974. This will be their first NCAA Tournament appearance under head coach Paul Mills, who is in his fourth season as head coach at Oral Roberts, and posted a 55-66 record during his time in Tulsa. Mills was an assistant with Baylor from 2003-17 before he was hired by Oral Roberts following the 2016-17 season to replace Scott Sutton.
The Buckeyes are no strangers to playing teams from the Summit League. In 2018, Ohio State drew South Dakota State in the First Round of the NCAA Tournament, beating Mike Daum and the Jackrabbits 81-73. All-time Ohio State is 8-1 against Summit League teams, with their only loss coming to Denver all the way back in 1951.
The Golden Eagles enter the NCAA Tournament with a 16-10 record, but that mark can be a little misleading. Oral Roberts played one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country this year. The Golden Eagles played Missouri, Wichita State, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, and Arkansas in the first month of the season. Even though Oral Roberts lost all five of those games, the only one they lost by more than 15 points came against Missouri in their season opener.
Ohio State will be tasked with trying to slow down one of the highest scoring offenses in the country. The Golden Eagles average 81.8 points per game, which ranks 12th in the NCAA. A big part of the offense of Oral Roberts is chucking up three-pointers. So far this year, Oral Roberts has attempted 754 triples, hitting 39% of those attempts. By comparison, Ohio State has attempted 77 less three-pointers in four more games than the Golden Eagles.
Leading the charge on offense for the Golden Eagles is guard Max Abmas, who is leading the country with 24.2 points per game. The Summit League Player of the Year is also fourth in the country with 3.6 made three-pointers per contest. The sophomore guard has eclipsed 30 points in seven games this year, and cracked the 40-point mark twice.
Complimenting Abmas is forward Kevin Obanor, who is averaging nearly a double-double this year with 18.2 points per game and 9.5 rebounds per game. Obanor has recorded 12 double-doubles this year, which is the 14th most in the NCAA this year. The redshirt junior had five straight double-doubles earlier this year, including a 39-point, 10 rebound performance against Omaha.
The Golden Eagles suffered a big injury last month when RJ Glasper was sidelined. The guard was averaging 11 points per game this year, and shooting free throws at 93% before his injury. As a team, Oral Roberts is shooting free throws at an 82.4% clip, which is the best mark in the country. Abmas is hitting 90% of his free throws, while Obanor is making 88% of his attempts from the charity stripe.
Stepping for Glasper has been Kareem Thompson and Carlos Jurgens. Thompson is averaging 8.8 points per game, while Jurgens is adding 5.6 points per game. At forward, rounding out the Oral Roberts rotation should be DeShang Weaver and Francis Lacis. Both average around 20 minutes per game, but don’t provide a ton of offense, as combined they average 10.3 points per game.
What should help Ohio State in this game is how bad Oral Roberts is defensively. Among the 68 teams selected for the NCAA Tournament, the Golden Eagles are the worst defensive team. Opponents are averaging 75.8 points per game and shooting 43.1% against Oral Roberts this year.
The biggest reason for the defensive deficiencies from the Golden Eagles this year has been their lack of size. Oral Roberts doesn’t have a player on their roster that measures taller than 6-foot-8. Even though Ohio State doesn’t have a ton of size, after facing some of the talented bigs that they’ve seen this year in the Big Ten, they should feel relieved to not have to deal with a team of that nature.
After playing in the hardest conference in the country this year, the Buckeyes can breathe a little easier heading into today’s game. That doesn’t mean this game is an automatic victory though. If Ohio State doesn’t come out on their game, Oral Roberts does have the ability to put points on the board early. While the defense of the Golden Eagles could quickly give up any lead that they build, the Buckeyes would be wise to not start the tournament off on a bad note.
Another reason Ohio State will want to come out strong is with the trouble they have had closing games this season. The four games of the Big Ten Tournament were a prime example of the struggles the Buckeyes have had in crunch time, blowing big leads late in their first three games, making a meal of what should have been easy victories. Ohio State doesn’t want to fall in the same habit against one of the most potent offenses in the country.
Today’s game could play out a lot like their first round game in 2018 did. South Dakota State came in with a dominant player who was able to put points on the board like Abmas can. The difference is Abmas doesn’t have quite as much of an inside presence as Mike Daum did. Really, aside from Obanor, Oral Roberts doesn’t have much of a threat in the paint. Because of that, we could see a big game from E.J. Liddell, who could use a strong game to restore some of his confidence after a tough Big Ten Tournament.
This has the feel of a game where Ohio State’s opponent feels like they are hitting everything they throw up early on, but lose steam as the game goes on. While the Golden Eagles have some nice pieces, they don’t quite have the talent and depth that Ohio State does. The Buckeyes are just too tough for Oral Roberts to handle in this game, as Ohio State is just too battle-tested from playing an insanely tough Big Ten schedule this year. The Buckeyes move on to the second round, as the Cinderella glass slipper doesn’t fit the Golden Eagles.
ESPN BPI: Ohio State 94.4%
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LGHL Score Prediction: 84-68 Ohio State
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