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Are the Buckeyes ready for the big game at Purdue?

After looking sharp against the Gophers, a confident Ohio State heads to West Lafayette with a lot at stake

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at Minnesota
A masked Meechie Johnson plays the point for the Buckeyes.
Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

With last Saturday’s matchup against Nebraska postponed because of the Huskers’ COVID-19 situation, I worried that the Buckeyes would show some rust on the road against Minnesota. Then, I heard that point guard Jamari Wheeler was out of action with an injury. I thought that if the Buckeyes had a shot against Purdue on Sunday, they had to play well against Minnesota. Given the circumstances, it looked iffy.

But the Buckeyes looked great against the Gophers — a team that’s pesky at the least and potentially dangerous. The first half was give-and-take. The Bucks were pretty cold from the floor, and the lead changed hands quite a few times. Ohio State took control at the beginning of the second half, though, and handled the Gophers pretty easily from then on. Here’s what I took away from the game in Minnesota as we head into the Purdue battle.

Point guard

Wheeler has played well at the point all season. He’s a master on defense and runs the offense with savvy and experience. In his absence, Meechie Johnson (wearing a super-hero mask to protect a facial fracture) got the start. Johnson didn’t score much – only three points on 1-of-7 shooting – but he was solid on defense and handed out three assists, with only one turnover, in 30 minutes of playing time. Meechie can do the job.

Coach Chris Holtmann, who collected his 100th win as the Buckeye’s head coach, also played Jimmy Sotos at the point in the first half. After Sotos’ nine-assist performance against IUPUI, he certainly deserved some playing time. He played seven minutes, and he, too, dished three assists. Cedric Russell, prized primarily as a shooter, also saw extended playing time (a little over 20 minutes) and pitched in with the ball-handling.

Bottom line: the Buckeyes are deep at all positions and can put on the floor any number of player combinations. With their varying strengths, the Buckeye guards give the opposition some matchup headaches.

Inside game

As I’ve remarked several times this season, my concern about the OSU basketball team is the lack of a true “big man” and a deficient inside game. Justin Ahrens, if he’s at one of the forward spots, doesn’t provide much if anything inside, and I thought that E.J. Liddell and Kyle Young were spending too much time on the perimeter launching threes. Such play resulted in some rebounding woes, especially offensive rebounding, and the game’s outcome depending on three-point accuracy from the Buckeye shooters.

Against Minnesota, we saw a different OSU effort. Liddell shot only three long balls (making two), and Young put up only two (missing both). Yet, inside they were both terrors. Liddell scored 23 points and pulled down 15 boards — eight of them on the offensive end. Young put in 14 points and collected four rebounds, two of them on Buckeye misses. Zed Key added 12 points and eight rebounds, three of them offensive rebounds. The Buckeyes out-rebounded Minnesota 48-22 and, with their 20 offensive rebounds, outscored the Gophers 27-6 on second-chance points.

Easy buckets on the inside (including a couple of big dunks near the end) boosted the OSU shooting percentage, and all of the front court players contributed with good shooting: Liddell was 9-of-14 from the floor, Young 5-of-7, and Key 6-of-9. All in all, a great effort inside.

The Buckeyes, though they’ve shot well most of the season, can’t rely on three-point baskets alone. Against Minnesota, the Bucks again shot poorly from beyond the arc – 26%. The breakdown looked like this: Young 0-of-2, Johnson 1-of-6, Malaki Branham 1-of-4, Ahrens 1-of-5, Russell 2-of-6, Eugene Brown III 0-of-1. Only Liddell, with two out of three, was on the mark. Yes, Wheeler was out of the game, but the key to the victory was the inside play. And, as we know, the inside game will be all-important against the big Boilermakers.

IUPUI v Ohio State Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

Super Liddell

E.J. Liddell played 35 minutes. During the five minutes that he was on the bench, Minnesota outscored the Bucks 12-9. I thought that Liddell played perhaps his best all-around game of the season. Sure, the numbers, points and rebounds, were great, but it was Liddell’s mere presence on the court that made the difference. He was all over the place, hustling, getting loose balls. He intimidated the opposition and boosted the play of his teammates. And the game marked a milestone for the Buckeye star, as he surpassed the 1000-point mark for his Ohio State career. Congratulations.

Sour notes

Brown had been playing so well of late that it was somewhat disappointing to see him scoreless in his 16 minutes of playing time. Whether he scores or not, he brings size, versatility, and defense. But still. And Branham? He started out on fire, giving the Buckeyes an early lead and keeping them in the game during that back-and-forth first half. But he, too, was held without a point in the second half. For the game, Branham made only five of his 14 shots, but he did pull down six boards and hand out three assists in 33 minutes of playing time. Not bad, of course, but he did really cool off in the second half.

Purdue game

Are the Buckeyes ready to take on Purdue? I think so. Even though the Boilermakers looked good at Iowa on Thursday night, winning 83-73, Ohio State has played really well in big games against big-time opponents. Remember the game against No. 1 Duke? The Bucks will be coming off of a strong performance against Minnesota. I don’t know whether Wheeler will play, but even if he isn’t able to, I think that OSU has the depth to step up. We’ll see. It should be well worth watching, even though the game is in a great time slot – just before the NFL conference championship games.