Ohio State basketball was very much in need of a conference road victory after fumbling away a late lead at Rutgers last Wednesday. That is exactly what they got this past Saturday, as they led virtually wire-to-wire against TTUN. The Buckeyes received a big boost from Cedric Russell off the bench, and E.J. Liddell was, well, E.J. Liddell. The star junior - who Chris Holtmann pounded the table for after the game - scored 28 points, to go with five rebounds and three blocks. He had 17 of those points after halftime, including eight free throws (hit a career-best 11/11 for the game). Russell and Liddell were the only Buckeyes in double figures.
The matchup against the Wolverines was far from being a must-win, but it sure was a “nice to have” win. After losing two out of three in deflating fashion, the Buckeyes needed a bounce-back victory. They were able to shake off a dismal closing stretch against Rutgers, and win one over a team that had just obliterated #3 Purdue 48 hours earlier. TTUN can spare me any fatigue excuses (four games in seven days) — Big Ten teams are going to have to condense their schedule to get all conference games in. Deal with it.
Ohio State now enters a closing stretch where they will play six out of eight remaining games at home. The Schott has been very kind to the Buckeyes, where they currently hold a 10-0 record. They are right in the thick of the Big Ten race, which is all you can ask for in mid-to-late February. The first of those six homes games is Tuesday night, against a very unpredictable Minnesota team.
The 2021-22 Minnesota Golden Gophers are an odd team... to say the least. They have lost twice to Michigan State, by a total of 10 points. They lost by just six to Wisconsin (on the road), and took down Rutgers shortly before the Scarlet Knights started knocking off every ranked team under the sun. On the other hand, the Gophers are also a 12-10 basketball team, currently sitting 12th in the Big Ten, with a recent seven-game losing streak to their name — which was capped off by a loss to Nebraska. Yes, that Nebraska. The Cornhuskers knocked off Minnesota last week, for their first conference victory of the season! And they never trailed in that game! Maybe we should have seen this coming, after the Gophers failed to finish .500 or better in the Big Ten for a fourth consecutive season (2020-21) — a season which ultimately cost Richard Pitino his job.
Minnesota is now led by new coach and alum, Ben Johnson. The Minneapolis native started his collegiate playing career at Northwestern, before transferring home to play his last two seasons with the Gophers. He immediately transitioned from player to coach, and spent time at Northern Iowa and Nebraska before landing a gig with his alma mater. After five seasons in the Twin Cities as a coach, he left for Xavier, where he was known as a very good recruiter. Finally, this prodigal son returned home upon the firing of Pitino, and is looking to get the program back to 20-win seasons.
While talented, Minnesota has struggled with depth, injuries, defense, and doing the dirty work. They have five players averaging at least eight points per game, led by forward Jamison Battle and guard Payton Willis. Those two are averaging 36 and 37 minutes per game respectively — indicative of how top-heavy the roster is. Battle and Willis combine to attempt 13 three-pointers per game, but they don’t do a ton else to instill fear in the defense. They both average less than three free throw attempts per game. Behind them are a few nice role players, but nobody who is going to make their opponent pay on a consistent basis. The Gophers basically have a seven-man rotation, which has hurt them on both the boards and the defensive end.
Minnesota is the worst rebounding team in conference play, in all categories (offensive, defensive, total). Opposing teams are shooting a Big Ten-best 48.2% from the field, and getting to the line 14 times per game against them. They don’t really turn the opponent over, averaging less than five steals per game, and they can’t stay out of foul trouble (you guessed it: last in the league in fouls committed). But other than those few weaknesses...
The Gophers are simply outclassed by most teams in the Big Ten. They have a few guys who can get buckets, but they struggle to play defense and rebound. This is the result of Richard Pitino failing to bring in much talent without Ben Johnson — and the most talented player he did bring in (Jamal Mashburn Jr.) following him to New Mexico. Perhaps if player and coach were given one more year, this team would be in a different position. That being said, Mashburn Jr. is an inefficient scorer with no other basketball interests, and the Lobos are 10-14... So maybe Minnesota is better off without both in the long run.
Johnson has his work cut out for him, but he will get time to turn it around. He clearly has a vested interest and passion for the program, whereas Pitino always seemed like an awkward fit. Johnson is known as a solid recruiter, so he just needs a few classes to build this thing up. I think he will do exactly that, given a few years.
Way back on January 27th, these two teams faced off in Minneapolis. The Buckeyes came away with a 75-64 victory in which they out-rebounded the Gophers by a 48-22 margin. OSU feasted on second-chance points, with 20 offensive rebounds, and I expect more of the same on Tuesday night.
Minnesota forward Eric Curry did not play in that January matchup, and he is coming off of a career-high performance against Penn State. The sixth-year senior captain could be a bit of a wildcard in this one, but his 22-point outburst against the Nittany Lions was more of an anomaly. He had not scored in double digits since his return from injury; a five-game sample size.
The Gophers would need a special performance from Battle, and an equally strong game from Willis — who has been hot as of late. But the Buckeyes can throw a lot of different looks at Battle, and Willis will have to contend with Jamari Wheeler, who missed the previous game between these two. The Gophers can be frisky, but I don’t see it in this one. The Buckeyes are just too good at home.
ESPN BPI: Ohio State 90.7%
Time: 8:30 p.m. ET, Tuesday Feb. 15
TV: Big Ten Network