It was an up and down month of February for the No. 23 Ohio State men’s basketball team (19-9, 12-7), but on senior day, they have a chance to enter the postseason on a good note.
After a rough 48 hours in which the Buckeyes lost to the Maryland Terrapins (15-15, 7-12) and the Nebraska Cornhuskers (9-21, 3-16) and the Buckeyes were left with injuries to sophomore center Zed Key and graduate senior forward Kyle Young, the future was looking fairly bleak as the Buckeyes were quite literally limping into March.
However, on Thursday night, the Buckeyes dug deep down and Joey Brunk stepped up as Ohio State earned a much needed win over the Michigan State Spartans, 80-69. Freshman guard Malaki Branham finished with 22 points, junior forward E.J. Liddell finished with 19 points and eight rebounds and transfer senior Joey Brunk, who was averaging 1.3 points per game entering this one, balled out and recorded 18 points, six rebounds and two steals.
Now the Buckeyes head into their final regular season game of the season to try and head into the Big Ten Tournament on a fairly unexpected two game winning streak. The team in front of them will be the Michigan Wolverines (16-13, 10-9), who are desperate for a win to help their NCAA tournament resume.
When it comes to seeding for the Big Ten Tournament, the Buckeyes are in a must win situation as well. Currently, they sit at fifth in the conference, just a game and a half behind Iowa. The top four seeds in the conference earn a double bye, which would be crucial for the Buckeyes to get some rest and get healthy as they have played five games in 11 days counting the Michigan game.
The Buckeyes have to beat Michigan and have Illinois beat Iowa. If that happens, the Buckeyes are the four seed. If the Buckeyes win and Iowa wins, the Buckeyes are the five seed, and if the Buckeyes lose and Rutgers wins, Ohio State will be the six seed. Rutgers takes on Penn State on Sunday.
For the Buckeyes, this game will come down to what they get from players with Branham and Liddell not on their back. Against Michigan State, Brunk recorded 18 points and transfer senior point guard Jamari Wheeler had 16 points to help take the scoring burden off the two stars.
In the Buckeyes’ first matchup against the Wolverines on Feb. 12, defense reigned supreme and Ohio State won 68-57. E.J. Liddell was spectacular on both ends of the floor, recording 28 points, five rebounds and three blocks. Cedric Russell provided 12 points off the bench for the Buckeyes. Michigan was led by Eli Brooks who finished with 17 points and five assists. Michigan star center Hunter Dickinson recorded 14 points and seven rebounds, but was just 7-for-17 from the floor. He shoots the ball at 56 percent from the field on the season.
Liddell leads the way for the Buckeyes this season, averaging 19.5 points per game and 7.8 rebounds per game while Hunter Dickinson leads Michigan, averaging 18.4 points per game and 8.5 rebounds per game. Michigan relies on teams doubling Dickinson down low and his ability to kick the ball out to shooters and them hitting those shots. For example, when they beat Purdue, they shot 12-for-20 from three-point range. In their loss to Ohio State, they were just 4-for-17.
The Buckeyes are a tough team to beat in Columbus, with their home record sitting at 13-1 and the one loss coming at the hands of Nebraska, the worst team in the conference.
Michigan is currently projected as a true bubble team right now, with some bracket experts having them on their “last four in” line and some having them as their “first four out”. They will likely need to win one or two games in the conference tournament to get in, but a road win against Ohio State to finish their season would go a long way on their resume.
Michigan head coach Juwan Howard will serve the final game of his five game suspension in this contest after his altercation with a Wisconsin assistant coach after their game in mid-February.
This is a huge game for both teams and the effort level will show that. There is no word about the availability of Zed Key and Kyle Young yet for this one, but both look like they are leaning to sitting out in order to be healthy for the conference tournament.
That will mean large minutes again for Joey Brunk, Cedric Russell and likely Jimmy Sotos. The Buckeyes will have to get contributions from other guys to help take the scoring load off of Liddell and Branham. However, even though he is a junior, Liddell is participating in senior day and will be heading to the NBA draft after this season, so this will be his final home game as a Buckeye. He and the six other seniors will be highly motivated to get a win.
Look for Justin Ahrens to step up and hit some shots in this one. What better way to come out of a scoring slump than senior day against your rival?
I think Ohio State wins this one in another fairly low scoring game. It will be back and forth, but simply being the home team will propel the Buckeyes to a win heading into the tournament.
ESPN BPI: Ohio State 70.6%
Time: 12:30 p.m. ET
LGHL score prediction: 68-64 Ohio State