On Jan. 25, 1972, the No. 6 Ohio State Buckeyes men’s basketball team led the No. 16 Minnesota Golden Gophers 50-44 in the closing seconds of the teams’ matchup at Minnesota’s Williams Arena. It looked like another road win for the Buckeyes — their fifth-straight victory — until Ohio State center Luke Witte, who was already on the ground after a flagrant foul, got kneed in the groin. In the ensuing moments, an all-out brawl broke out that sent three Ohio State players to the hospital.
Now, 50 years and two days later, the 16th-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes travel back to Minneapolis to face Minnesota in the first of two against the Gophers scheduled for this season.
There’s a lot at play this evening. For starters, E.J. Liddell is just a dozen points short of 1,000 for his career at Ohio State. If he meets the mark against Minnesota (which he is well on-track to do, averaging more than 19 points per game currently and having scored less than 12 points just twice this season), Liddell would join 59 other players in program history who’ve met this milestone.
But that’s not all. Head coach Chris Holtmann is also seeking his 100th win as head coach at Ohio State. A W tonight would make him the seventh-such Ohio State coach to join that club.
The Buckeyes, sitting at 12-4 on the season, including 5-2 in conference play, could move into a tie with Michigan State and Wisconsin for second place (Illinois is alone at the top by a half-game margin). It’s a tight race, and the Buckeyes will need to avoid looking ahead to Sunday’s matchup on the road at No. 6 Purdue.
Ohio State would seem to have emerged from its January slump. The Buckeyes are winners of two straight after falling to Wisconsin, which was enough for them to rise to the No. 16 spot in the latest AP Poll, and they just officially gave a scholarship to walk-on Harrison Hoofkin, which generated a lot of positive coverage for the program.
Minnesota, meanwhile, is 11-5 overall on the season, including 2-5 in conference play.in head coach Ben Johnson’s first season at the helm in Minneapolis. After Johnson started his college career playing at Northwestern, he wrapped his final two seasons up playing with Minnesota. His return to his alma mater, which also happens to be his first stint as head coach, has been a struggle when it’s come to conference play, which makes sense for a program that hasn’t won a conference title since 1997.
The Buckeyes have seemed to find their footing in the last week — if wins over IUPUI and Penn State are any indication. Of course, it doesn’t help that, once again, the team’s rhythm is getting thrown off with another game, Nebraska, initially scheduled for this past Sunday, postponed due to a rise in COVID cases on the Huskers’ roster.
On the other side of the court, Minnesota is coming off a narrow win over Rutgers, when the Gophers were down three members of their starting lineup due to illness and injury. That win snapped a four-game losing streak, which was compounded on either side by canceled or postponed matchups.
Leading the way for Minnesota in that matchup was Payton Willis. The point guard, who transferred from the College of Charleston back to the Gophers for his second stint in Minneapolis, had a career-high 32 points against the Scarlet Knights. He was also hot, as per usual, from beyond the arc, connecting on eight three-pointers and tying for a program best. Willis got help from Luke Loewe, who played through illness to total 19 points — a season-high for the senior guard.
The Gophers who made it to the floor shot well, connecting on 54% of shots from the field, and matching that success rate from three-point range. They out-rebounded Rutgers 27-25, but had 15 turnovers to Rutgers’ 11. Minnesota also was deficient on defensive stats, with five steals to the Scarlet Knights’ seven and one block to Rutgers’ three.
The win over Rutgers was unexpected under the circumstances, especially as the Gophers were missing their top scorer. Sophomore forward Jamison Battle led the Gophers in scoring on the season with 18 points per game. He’d also been connecting on nearly 38% of his shots from range. Against the Scarlet Knights, Minnesota was also without seniors Eric Curry and EJ Stephens in the lineup. While Stephens could be back against Ohio State, Battle and Curry are both listed as day-to-day.
The Gophers certainly feel those struggles, as they have the 12th-ranked scoring offense in the Big Ten on a good day. However, it’s not all bad news for Minnesota. Willis leads the conference in three-point percentage, connecting on 42.4% of his shots from beyond the arc. He’s also second in the Big Ten with 1.8 steals per game.
The odds would seem to be in Ohio State’s favor in this matchup, if for no other reason than the Buckeyes are close to full strength (even with Jamari Wheeler and Meechie Johnson Jr. as game-time decisions this evening). However, penciling in the W tonight is preemptive. The Gophers have shown they can be scrappy and do a lot with a little. In particular, they’ve been saved by hot connecting from range, which has proven to be an Achilles heel for the Buckeyes at various points this season when Ohio State has not been able to turn on its own three-point shooting.
Against IUPUI, the Buckeyes shot 48% from beyond the arc. Versus Penn State, that number was an abysmal 25%. It also was a major factor in Ohio State’s loss to Wisconsin, when Ohio State shot just 16% to Wisconsin’s 43.5%.
It also doesn’t help that Justin Ahrens has been (what’s cooler than being cool?) ice cold from beyond the arc recently. He’s shot 25% or less from range in six of the last seven games, the exception being when he shot 33% against Indiana with two successful threes. There was also that time he went 0-for-5 against Northwestern.
While Ohio State theoretically has enough in the tank to make up for poor range shooting versus a depleted Minnesota, it’s not something to test against a team that’s done so well with three-pointers with the remaining players on the court. .
On the flip side, Battle and Willis are both playing close to 37 minutes per game, which certainly calls the Gophers’ depth into question even when both are healthy, especially with questions remaining on the status of Battle, Curry and Stephens. It didn’t help that Minnesota had zero points off the bench against Rutgers.
Minnesota had just seven scholarship players available against Rutgers (literally the minimum the Gophers could have brought to play according to Big Ten rules). The situation looks like it could be similar against the Buckeyes tonight, and frankly Ohio State presents more of a threat to exploit the shorthanded Gophers than the Scarlet Knights could.
Further, Ohio State has shown in the last two games that it can win with exceptional defense. In particular, Liddell leads the conference in blocks with 2.8 per game.
Overall, Ohio State owns the all-time series against the Gophers 88-60. While the Buckeyes fell in the regular season to Minnesota last season, they got the W in the Big Ten Tournament. In terms of extrinsic motivators, both Liddell and Holtmann could see major milestones in their respective playing and coaching careers tonight.
However, Minnesota is playing at home, right back to Williams Arena. This go-round would seem to be less contentious than the matchup of yore, so here’s to hoping for a brawl-free game and an Ohio State victory.
ESPN BPI: Ohio State 61.5%
Time: 8 p.m. ET