The No. 13 Ohio State Buckeyes (8-2, 2-0) had all the momentum they could ask for, and as much confidence as they’d had all season just a few weeks ago. They were riding a four-game winning streak, including a monumental upset of No. 2 Duke (then No. 1) and a downright beatdown of No. 24 Wisconsin. Their national player of the year candidate, E.J. Liddell, was hitting his stride, but the real difference maker that pushed Ohio State from good to great were contributions from other pieces, like Cedric Russell, Kyle Young, and Zed Key. Looming was a huge matchup with No. 18 Kentucky — a game the Buckeyes likely would have been favored in.
But things did not go as planned, to put it lightly.
A few positive COVID-19 tests, prompted by a sick player, led to more than half of the roster testing positive during the week following their win over Wisconsin. Unable to field enough healthy players to compete, Ohio State had no choice but to cancel the Kentucky, UT-Martin, and New Orleans games. The team went about two weeks without any team activities, but has been practicing since last Sunday in preparation for today’s game at Nebraska (6-7, 0-2).
Ohio State’s was very good offensively against the Badgers three weeks ago, scoring 73 points and shooting an even 50% from the floor and 31.6% from three-point range. Liddell paced them with 28 points — one shy of his career high. The only other Buckeye to score in double-digits was Key, who had a very-efficient 11 points and 9 rebounds in 23 minutes. But Ohio State’s defense was even more impressive.
The Buckeyes held Wisconsin to just 55 points on 33.8% shooting and 23.1% from three-point range, including a very strong game from Jonathan Davis, who scored 24 points on 11-22 shooting. Badgers not named Jonathan Davis shot 11-43 from the floor, good for a 25.6% shooting percentage. Ohio State did not block a ton of shots (four) or force a ton of turnovers (only eight). But they made the Badgers take difficult, contested shots over and over again, and were able to grab the rebound the first time (only allowing five offensive rebound) and then score on the other end. Simple and effective.
But can they keep up that same energy on defense after three weeks off? Some players felt symptoms, some did not. But even if they felt fine, the team has only been practicing for one week since being inactive for 15 days. Conditioning could play a part in Sunday’s outcome. Nebraska isn’t good, but they play at a quicker pace than any other team in the Big Ten.
The Nebraska Cornhuskers are... a basketball team. Somewhat. Fred Hoiberg has not gotten off to the best start in Lincoln, going 20-52 (.278) in his first two-plus seasons there. The ‘Huskers had a bright outlook at the beginning of the season, boasting three really talented guards in five-star combo guard Bryce McGowens, his older brother Trey (a Pitt transfer), and former Arizona State guard and PAC-12 Sixth Man of the Year Alonzo Verge. The rest of the pieces needed to fit around them, but in the very least, they had a good foundation with those three.
However, things haven’t gone as planned for Nebraska thus far. The elder McGowens broke his foot during the third game of the season and has been out ever since. Bryce McGowens has been good (15.6 PPG, 5.9 REB), but inefficient, barely shooting 40% from the floor and only 24% from three-point land. Despite these numbers, he is still taking 12 shots per game and nearly five attempts from deep per night. At that rate, Ohio State can probably afford to let the younger McGowens brother hoist some shots up Sunday evening.
Verge has been a very similar player to Bryce McGowens thus far — explosive and electric, but also inefficient at times and turnover-prone. He averages a team-high 16.4 points per game and is shooting 45.7% from the floor, but is struggling from deep, hitting just 28% of his threes. Holtmann mentioned Verge by name during his Monday radio show, saying that he was “One of the tougher guys to guard in the conference.” As a team, Nebraska is shooting 27.5% from downtown, the worst mark in the B1G.
Verge can be loose with the basketball at times as well. He leads the B1G with 5.9 assists per game, but also turns the ball over more than anyone else in the conference with 3.9 giveaways per contest. Pressuring McGowens and Verge into turning the ball over will be a key point of emphasis for the Buckeyes in tonight's game.
Something else Buckeye fans should keep an eye on tonight is pace of play. Despite their various woes and misgivings, Nebraska does lead the conference in one thing: speed. Hoiberg’s team is eighth in the country in adjusted tempo according to KenPom, which measures how many possessions a team has over the course of a 40-minute game. The next closest Big Ten team to Nebraska in this category is Iowa at 42. Ohio State, by comparison, is 207th in tempo — one of the slowest teams in the conference.
But why could tempo wind up being so important tonight? Well, because Ohio State took 15 days off from practice and has not played in a game in 23. It may take a little time for some of the players to re-adjust to pace of play after having so much time off, just like it would take you or me time to recondition our lungs to running regularly after taking some time off. This likely won’t be the deciding factor in tonight’s game, but look for Nebraska to try to get up and down the floor quickly in an effort to get some easy fast break points.
All things considered, Ohio State could not ask for an easier matchup to start (re-start, really) Big Ten play after their layoff. Nebraska has lost five of their last six games, is 0-6 against teams from major conferences, and their best win is against KenPom’s No. 240 team, Sam Houston State — who are 6-8 this season. There’s plenty of time for Nebraska to turn it around, starting with Sunday’s game against Ohio State — but the results so far don’t show any reason that we should expect them to do that.
Ohio State’s talent gap over Nebraska is so wide that the Buckeyes could probably take three months off practice and still be able to show up and compete with the ‘Huskers. Nebraska does not have a player who presents a clear challenge for Liddell defensively, so he should be a steady force for the Buckeyes, like he has been all season.
The keys for Ohio State will be to avoid unforced turnovers and to force Nebraska to kick the ball out and take long jumpers, rather than letting them drive to the basket. The Cornhuskers are one of the worst jump-shooting teams in the nation — if they have a fantastic day from three-point land, tip your cap and move on. But they typically struggle when their offense operates on the perimeter.
It wouldn’t shock me if this game is close at halftime, or even if Nebraska has a lead. OSU hasn’t seen live competition since early December, it may take 20 or so minutes until they really get in sync. But by the time the buzzer sounds, the Buckeyes should be 3-0 in conference play.
ESPN BPI: Ohio State 77.3%
Line: Ohio State -9.5
Time: 8:00 p.m. ET