Okay Buckeye hoops fans, let’s take a deep breath. It has been a rough 72 hours for the No. 23 Ohio State men’s basketball team and the road is not getting any easier, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
After a great week of beating Indiana in overtime and then Illinois on the road, the Buckeyes (18-9, 11-7) positioned themselves for a possible share of the Big Ten title. Granted that did not matter with Wisconsin beating Purdue on Tuesday night, but the idea was fun while it lasted.
However, since then, the Buckeyes have dropped their last two games at Maryland and at home against Nebraska. Against Maryland, the Buckeyes struggled to get going on offense and Maryland guards Fatts Russell and Eric Ayala combined for 50 points while the Buckeyes only scored 60 in the 75-60 loss.
Against Nebraska, it was a tough watch pretty much all the way around. Husker freshman Bryce McGowens went for 26 points in the 78-70 win and the Buckeyes simply wasted a 27 point, 14 rebound, 6 block performance from E.J. Liddell in 39 minutes played. Coming into the contest, Nebraska had not beaten a ranked opponent in their last 24 tries. That streak is now over.
So, this is the time that the Buckeyes beed to step up. Losses like these can either end your season and confidence or become a much needed wake-up call. Maryland and Nebraska are a combined 23-36 overall and 9-28 in the Big Ten; two games that you should have been able to pencil in as Ws for the Buckeyes ended up in the L column.
To add on, the games left on the regular season schedule are at home against Michigan State and Michigan, two teams that will be desperate for momentum heading into the postseason. The Buckeyes have to play Michigan State just 48 hours after the Nebraska loss and Michigan just two days after that.
The biggest thing for the Buckeyes will be whether or not they can climb back up into the No. 4 seed in the Big Ten Tournament, a spot now owned by Iowa after OSU’s Tuesday night loss.
The significance of a top-four seed in the conference tournament is a double bye and an extra day of rest, something that the Buckeyes desperately need after playing seven games in 16 days. Iowa finishes their season at Michigan and against Illinois, so their road is not the easiest either. Ohio State needs to win their last two and hope Iowa drops one in order to get that No. 4 seed back.
Similar to last season, it has been a rollercoaster year for Tom Izzo and the Michigan State Spartans (19-10, 10-8). Lacking a true star, the Spartans have had to rely on spreading the wealth around.
Their leading scorer is Gabe Brown, who averages just 11.4 points per game. He is the lone Spartan who averages double-digit scoring. Senior forward Malik Hall is putting up 9.6 points per game and freshman Max Christie is just behind at 9.5.
The Spartans are coming off of a tough loss to rival Michigan in which they did basically nothing right, but in the game before that, Sparty defeated No. 3 Purdue in a game where they did basically everything right. Senior guard Tyson Walker drained a three-pointer with one second left to knock off the Boilermakers.
Michigan State is in the tournament as of now, and that should not change, but like the Buckeyes, they need to get some wins this week to have any momentum and confidence heading into the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments.
The Buckeyes are still led by Liddell, who is averaging 19.6 points and 7.7 rebounds per game. According to KenPom, the Buckeyes offense is 11th in the country, but the defense sits much lower at 118.
According to Adam Jardy of The Columbus Dispatch, it has been a terrible two weeks for the Buckeyes on that side of the ball.
Entering the Feb. 19 Iowa game, the #Buckeyes had climbed to No. 84 in adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom. In the last five games, they have dropped 34 spots to No. 118 nationally.— Adam Jardy (@AdamJardy) March 2, 2022
The defense has been horrendous and the Buckeyes’ reliance on the offense to bail them out has not worked out super well over the past two games. This is simply a team that has to fix the defense or they could be watching the later rounds of the NCAA tournament from their couches. The Spartans are a good team to do that against since they have had prolonged struggles on offense this season.
Michigan State is more consistent on both sides, but are not nearly as good on offense as the Buckeyes. The Spartans are 45th in offensive efficiency and 51st in defensive efficiency. One area to look at will be the point guard position. Guard A.J. Hoggard has been their leader over the past month, but he was under the weather against Michigan and only played 11 minutes. Backup point guard Tyson Walker is incredibly talented as well, but he suffered an injury against TTUN and is questionable for this short turnaround game. If they can’t go or are limited, it will be that much more difficult on the offensive end for Michigan State.
However, Ohio State is thin too. Graduate transfer Seth Towns is done for the season, senior forward Justice Sueing does not have a timetable for his return, and sophomore center Zed Key is in a walking boot after suffering an ankle sprain against Maryland. On Tuesday, graduate senior Kyle Young left the contest against Nebraska with an “illness,” after what appeared to be yet another shot to the head for OSU’s glue-guy. Key and Young’s status for tonight’s game will not be known until 30 minutes from tipoff, but it doesn’t look good, especially for Young who has a history of concussions.
On top of all of that, point guard Meechie Johnson has battled injuries all season and only played two minutes against Nebraska. Guards Cedric Russell and Eugene Brown were both seen limping after certain plays over the last two games and point guard Jamari Wheeler took a knee to the head diving for a loose ball against Nebraska. Freshman sensation Malaki Branham also took a hard fall at the end of the half against Nebraska and was very slow to get up and Liddell suffered from cramps late in the game against Nebraska after playing 39 of 40 minutes.
So basically, the OSU roster is currently a M*A*S*H* unit.
Call this one blind optimism — or simple stupidity if you will — but I still have faith in this team. This is still a Buckeye squad that beat Duke, Wisconsin by 18, and just last week won at Illinois in a game where for 35 minutes, they truly looked like they could play with anyone in the country. It has been a tough two games, but all they need is one game to get back on track.
One position that they need more production from is point guard. Wheeler is not known for his scoring prowess and is more of a defensive stalwart, but with all of the injuries on the team, he has to look to score more often than he has this season.
Russell played well against Maryland, but was 1-for-5 against Nebraska and looked lost on defense on more than one occasion. Johnson only played two minutes against the Huskers while senior Jimmy Sotos played 22 minutes and was solid. Someone from the group of guards has to score the ball more consistently. It will likely be Russell, but his minutes on the floor have been inconsistent.
Liddell and Branham are one of the top duos in the conference, but they need some production from somewhere else. Young provided that against Illinois and Maryland so his availability for these last two games is key to the Buckeyes’ success.
This game will be close the whole way but I think Liddell will take over like the superstar that he is. Sometimes you just have to remind the folks exactly who you are.
ESPN BPI: Ohio State 71.1%
Time: 7 p.m. ET