The No. 22 Ohio State Buckeyes are really cramming their games in as they approach the final days of the regular season. In fact, Chris Holtmann and Company have four games remaining between this afternoon and next Sunday — continuing a stretch of games taking place nearly every other day.
That stretch, however, has produced generally positive results. After falling to Iowa in their first home loss of the season, the Buckeyes are coming off two-straight wins against Indiana and Illinois, both of which came in dramatic fashion last week. Most recently, Ohio State put together an impressive 86-83 victory over No. 15 Illinois in Champaign after being behind for the entirety of the first half.
In other positive news coming from that game, freshman guard Malaki Branham scored a team-high 31 points as he continues to ease the burden of scoring that’s largely fallen on junior forward E.J. Liddell. Liddell himself was no slouch despite being questionable for the game with illness, adding 21 points of his own. Senior forward Kyle Young had 18 points and a team-high seven rebounds coming off the bench. The 29 total points off the bench were a boon for an Ohio State team that had been struggling with the metric.
In all, Ohio State shot 52% from the field and 50% from three-point range — another major area of improvement. Rebounds and turnovers were generally even in what was an emotional, down-to-the-wire game that also featured Illinois head coach Brad Underwood getting ejected in front of a roaring, sold out crowd.
There’s no time for the Buckeyes to rest on their laurels, however, Next up is Maryland, a team that’s struggled this season and is simply vying to finish slightly further from the bottom of the Big Ten in the final games of the season. The Terps are sitting at 13-15 on the year, including 5-12 in conference play, and Maryland is 12th in the conference standings ahead of only Minnesota and Nebraska. Most recently, Maryland dropped its matchup with Indiana 74-64.
Ohio State, meanwhile, is certainly not out of contention for a regular season conference title, though they’d need help to get there. The Buckeyes are two games behind Wisconsin, one game back from Purdue and a half game back Illinois in the conference standings. Of course, the Buckeyes are themselves 1.5 games ahead of fifth-place Iowa in the standings. Overall, Ohio State is 18-7 on the season and 11-5 in conference play.
Despite winning two straight over Nebraska and Penn State, the Terps couldn’t put the puzzle pieces together to make it three in a row against Indiana. After playing a close first half and being tied early in the second, the Hoosiers pulled away to give Maryland its 12th conference loss of the year.
Graduate guard Fatts Russell led the Terps in scoring with 23 points on the night. Junior guard Hakim Hart added 14, while junior forward Donta Scott added 10. Maryland shot 43% from the field, including 40% from three-point range. However, Indiana outrebounded the Terps 27-25 and had 11 turnovers to Maryland’s 16.
The Buckeyes faced Maryland on Feb. 6, when Ohio State emerged with an 82-67 win at home. While the Terps scored the first points of the game, Ohio State quickly caught up and built a lead they would not relinquish for the remaining 38-plus minutes of play.
As was the norm earlier this year, Liddell anchored the Buckeyes, pouring in 24 points and securing 11 rebounds. Forwards Zed Key and Justin Ahrens each added 14, with Ahrens coming off the bench, which were their highest point totals in conference play this year. In particular, Maryland was a matchup where Ahrens shined from range, connecting on 4-of-7 attempts after struggling in previous games.
The Buckeyes shot just under 51% from the field, and had a solid day from range, connecting on 42% from beyond the arc. Ohio State outrebounded Maryland 36-33, and had just six turnovers to Maryland’s nine.
Scott led Maryland in scoring with 25 points, and drained 5-of-8 from range. However, the Terps had just six points off the bench.
It was refreshing to see the Buckeyes’ scoring offense get back into gear in the last two games after being stifled in succession against Rutgers, Michigan, Minnesota and Iowa. Given, however, that Ohio State dropped 82 on Maryland last time out, offensive production would seem to be less of a cause for concern.
As mentioned, Branham has been a major component of Ohio State’s offensive resurgence in recent games. He’s been shooting spot on, connecting on 68% of his shots over the last four games.
Of course, Maryland’s Russell has found a similar scoring groove recently, averaging nearly 22 points on 48% shooting in his last five games. Scott was a threat from the outside that Ohio State struggled to contain their last time out, but he hasn’t made a three-pointer in three games.
There’s also the challenge that Ohio State has blown big leads twice in the last two games. While neither came back to bite them, the Buckeyes have to capitalize on their leads and not let opponents back in the game. Maryland wouldn’t seem to have the firepower to mount a comeback a la Indiana or Illinois, but Ohio State needs to start thinking like a tournament team and not allowing these types of resurgences.
While Ohio State rattled off two straight wins, at some point, fatigue does become an issue. Fortunately, the Buckeyes had a more normal break between their Thursday win over Illinois and their Sunday afternoon matchup today.
This afternoon’s matchup marks the second-straight road game for the Buckeyes, but the last road game of the season. However, we can reasonably anticipate that the crowd at Maryland will be less hostile and intense than the one the Buckeyes faced Thursday night against Illinois.
The all-time series with Maryland is knotted up at nine-all, and all the pieces seem to be in place for Ohio State to take this next iteration and better position itself ahead of the Big Ten Tournament. All that’s left to do is execute.
ESPN BPI: Ohio State 62.8%
Time: 4 p.m. ET