After playing their last two games on the road, Ohio State will close out their regular season schedule with three games at Value City Arena this week. The first of those games is the makeup of the Jan. 22 contest against the Nebraska Cornhuskers that was postponed due to COVID-19 issues. This is the final postponed game that Ohio State will have to make up.
Ohio State won’t have much time to put a disappointing performance on Sunday behind them, when the Buckeyes lost 75-60 to the Maryland Terrapins in College Park. The setback throws a wrench into Ohio State’s hopes of at least earning a share of the Big Ten regular season title. Even though it’s still possible the Buckeyes could share the regular season crown, the possibility of it happening will disappear if Wisconsin wins one of their two remaining games.
While a share of the Big Ten regular season title would be quite an accomplishment for Ohio State, more important for the Buckeyes is securing one of the top-four spots in the Big Ten standings, which would earn Chris Holtmann’s team a double-bye in next weeks’ Big Ten Tournament in Chicago. For a team that has had a crammed schedule at the end of the season, extra rest is desperately needed.
Even though we want to forget about Ohio State’s game on Sunday against Maryland as soon as possible, we have to at least briefly take a glance at it before moving on to Nebraska. Following Thursday’s win over Illinois in Champaign, it was quite obvious that the Buckeyes were running on fumes on Sunday. The Buckeyes shot just 36.2% from the field against the Terrapins, which was their second-lowest output of the season. Despite their sluggish play, Ohio State still found themselves down just 53-50 with eight minutes to go in the second half before Maryland ended the game on a 22-10 run to secure the victory.
Leading Ohio State in scoring for a fourth straight game was Malaki Branham, who was named Big Ten Freshman of the Week for the third time this season. Don’t expect Branham to remember much from the Maryland game though, as he was 4-of-13 from the field, and 1-of-6 from three-point range. Branham is averaging 12.6 points per game this season, which ranks second on the team behind E.J. Liddell’s 19.3 points per game. Liddell and Branham are the only Buckeyes averaging double figures in scoring this season.
Tonight, Ohio State will try and sweep the regular season series with Nebraska, who the Buckeyes defeated 87-79 in overtime on Jan. 2 in Lincoln. The game will be remembered for Branham’s breakout performance, with his 35 points eclipsing his prior career-high in a scarlet and gray uniform by 24 points. Ohio State needed the monster effort from Branham, since E.J. Liddell struggled throughout the game, finishing with 10 points on 2-of-14 shooting from the field.
The Buckeyes needed some heroics in their first meeting with the Cornhuskers. Nebraska was up 72-67 with 36 seconds to go after a Lat Mayen dunk. Jamari Wheeler responded quickly with a three-pointer with 27 seconds to go, and Liddell sent the game to overtime by hitting a pair of free throws with nine seconds to go in the second half. Wheeler and Meechie Johnson Jr. each hit a triple in the early part of overtime, and Wheeler’s three-pointer with just under two minutes to go in the extra session essentially clinched the game for Ohio State.
With the victory, Ohio State pushed their all-time record against Nebraska to 20-4, with a 16-2 mark coming since the Cornhuskers joined the Big Ten prior to the 2011-12 season. the Buckeyes have now won six straight games against Nebraska. The last loss handed to Ohio State by the Cornhuskers came in 2017 when Nebraska beat the Buckeyes 58-57 in Columbus. The win just over five years ago remains the only win by the Cornhuskers in Columbus.
If Ohio State is able to win tonight’s game, as well as one more game this season, the Buckeyes will be just one of two Power 5 teams to record 20 wins in each of the last five years. Kansas is the only team to accomplish that feat, while Oregon is also two wins away from reaching 20 wins this season. Even more impressive is head coach Chris Holtmann’s teams have won at least 20 games in each of the last eight seasons.
There has been very few positives for Nebraska this season, as evidenced by their 2-16 record in the Big Ten. One of those two wins came on Sunday when the Cornhuskers had little trouble with Penn State in State College, beating the Nittany Lions 93-70. Fred Hoiberg’s team opened up a 49-31 lead at halftime, and kept pouring on the points in the second half, extending their lead to as many as 32 points before Penn State made the score look a little more respectable with some garbage time points.
Leading the way for Nebraska in the victory over the Nittany Lions was freshman Bryce McGowens, who scored 25 points. All five starters scored at least 10 points for the Cornhuskers in the blowout. Alonzo Verge Jr. added 15 points, and Lat Mayen scored 13 points. Even Nebraska’s bench got in on the action, with C.J. Wilcher scoring nine points and Kobe Webster recording seven points.
Even though Nebraska has taken their lumps this year, the Cornhuskers do have a reason for optimism in the future. Bryce McGowens is just a freshman, yet he leads Nebraska with 16.9 points per game this year. McGowens has tied a school record this year with 10 20-point games as a freshman, equaling Joe McCray’s mark for the 2004-05 season. The guard is also the NCAA’s scoring leader among true freshman as of February 25th, with his scoring average two-tenths of a point higher than Paolo Banchero of Duke.
The hiring of Fred Hoiberg was a splashy move for Nebraska after Hoiberg spent time coaching in the NBA. Unfortunately, the previous success that Hoiberg enjoyed at Iowa State hasn’t translated to Lincoln. In three seasons as Nebraska’s head coach, Hoiberg is just 22-66. Even though Lincoln is a tough place to win, many around Nebraska were hoping Hoiberg would have the program on better standing than it is now. There needs to be considerable improvement next year by the Cornhuskers, or Hoiberg might find himself out of a job.
This is a game that Ohio State should normally win easily. Unfortunately, nothing about tonight’s game is normal. Not only are the Buckeyes in the middle of a grueling stretch that still has Michigan State and Michigan coming to Columbus later this week, but Ohio State has been shorthanded pretty much all season, since Justice Sueing has only played in a couple games earlier in the year, while Seth Towns hasn’t been able to play at all.
Thursday’s win against Illinois was huge for Ohio State’s confidence, but they might have sacrificed some of their stamina because of all they had to put into the victory. Tonight’s game against the Cornhuskers isn’t a given, especially considering the way Nebraska played Ohio State earlier in the season. Fred Hoiberg’s team will enter tonight’s game with a little pep in their step after how they took care of Penn State on Sunday to snap a four-game losing streak.
This feels like a game that is going to be closer than some of the experts might think. Ohio State wins at home, they just don’t blowout Nebraska. The Cornhuskers will play loose since they have nothing to lose the rest of the season, so they could hang around for a bit. The Buckeyes grind away at the lead, slowly extending it before they find themselves up by double-digits with around five minutes remaining in the game. While it’s not a game that does much to relieve the cries from the “Fire Holtmann” crowd, the Buckeyes do what they need to do before taking on the teams from That State Up North on Thursday and Sunday.
ESPN BPI: Ohio State 95.6%
Time: 7 p.m. ET
TV: Big Ten Network