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Ohio State men’s basketball vs Loyola-Chicago: Game preview and prediction

Can Ohio State silence the doubters?

Loyola v Kansas State Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Well, folks, here we are. It is officially March, and that means it is time for the NCAA tournament.

For the fourth-straight season and every season under current head coach Chris Holtmann (not including the 2020 season when the tournament was canceled due to COVID-19), the Ohio State Buckeyes (19-11) are dancing. For the third time in those four appearances, the Buckeyes have earned a single-digit seed. The No. 7 seeded Buckeyes will see the No. 10 seed Loyola-Chicago Ramblers (25-7) and the legend of Sister Jean in Pittsburgh in the first game on Friday for their first-round matchup. The Ramblers won the Missouri Valley Conference championship to clinch their spot in the big dance.

The victor will face the winner of No. 2 Villanova and No. 15 Delaware. The loser, as the tournament goes, will see their season come to an end.

Loyola-Chicago has been a staple in the NCAA tournament over the past few years, making a historic Final Four run in 2018 and making the Sweet 16 last season after knocking off Ayo Dosunmu and Illinois as an eight seed. However, they did miss the tournament in 2019.

For the Buckeyes, they come into this one with something to prove. After defeating Illinois on the road on Feb. 24, the Buckeyes have since dropped four of their final five games of the season, including the second-round matchup and their first game of the Big Ten Tournament against Penn State. In three of those four losses, the Buckeyes held second-half leads.

The Buckeyes have been battered and bruised all season, and losing early in the Big Ten Tournament is maybe not the worst thing that has ever happened. Last season, they made a run to the Big Ten championship, but only had three days to prepare for Oral Roberts, lost Kyle Young and we all know how that went. Now, they have had eight days to rest and mentally prepare for this one.


Preview

The second this matchup was announced, the Buckeyes became a popular pick to be upset. At this point, if the Buckeyes lose, it would really only be an upset in terms of seeding. Loyola-Chicago is one of the more efficient teams on both ends of the ball, and they can beat you down physically. They are also extremely experienced, with their six top scorers being upperclassmen and four being seniors.

Now there are some differences between the Ramblers this season and years of past. First of all, their head coach is gone. Porter Moser left after last season to take over the Oklahoma head job and Tom Izzo disciple Drew Valentine came in and took over. The brother of NBA player Denzel Valentine has done a phenomenal job in his first season.

Star big man Cameron Krutwig has also graduated. Krutwig was a staple on those successful Moser teams and had a huge game last season against Illinois, putting up 19 points, 12 rebounds, five assists, and four steals. That Rambler defense held the potent Illinois offense to just 58 points.

This season, Lucas Williamson is the star for the Ramblers. Williamson is the definition of a two-way player, averaging 14 points and five rebounds per game, and was the Missouri Valley defensive player of the year. You can bet his job Friday will be to get some needed buckets for the Ramblers on the offensive end and shut down Malaki Branham on the defensive end. At 6-foot-4, Williamson is long enough to make life hard for the talented Buckeye freshman. However, Branham has proven he can score in traffic, so that will easily be the matchup to watch.

Loyola-Chicago is incredibly efficient on the court, ranking in the top 30 in KenPom in offense and defensive efficiency and shooting 56 percent from two-point range on the season.

Third team All-American E.J. Liddell will have to get going early and often in this one. Liddell averages 19.6 points and 7.9 rebounds per game. Loyola-Chicago has great guard play, but they do not have a dominant big man. Liddell should be able to get to his spots and make life miserable on the Rambler defense.


Prediction

Big Ten Tournament - Second Round - Ohio State v Penn State Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

There is a reason why the line on the DraftKings Sportsbook is currently even. This is going to be a great game. This Buckeye team has what happened last season on their brains in the first round, and guys like E.J. Liddell, Jamari Wheeler, and Cedric Russell do not want to end their collegiate careers with zero NCAA tournament wins.

I have Ohio State winning a close one here. With the reports that Zed Key and Kyle Young are available and going to play, this is the first game since the Illinois matchup that the Buckeyes are fully healthy, excluding Justice Sueing and Seth Towns.

Wheeler has to have a great game guarding Rambler junior point guard Braden Norris, who shoots the ball at a 44 percent clip from deep. As mentioned, the Ramblers are not big and their tallest starter is 6-foot-7, so Kyle Young and Zed Key will play a huge role. And of course, Joey Brunk.

I am predicting a Liddell masterclass, Cedric Russell, Jamari Wheeler, and Justin Ahrens get in double digits, and Kyle Young has 12 rebounds as the Buckeyes win. Might as well be specific.


DraftKings Sportsbook Line: PK (Even)
Time: 12:15 p.m. ET
TV: CBS

LGHL score prediction: 68-62 Ohio State