As Christmas time rolls around and the weather turns to cold, the Ohio State men’s basketball team (8-2) heads to Atlanta to take on the UCLA Bruins (5-3) in the 2023 CBS Sports Classic. This is the ninth year of the CBS Sports Classic, and the Buckeyes are 2-1 against UCLA in the event.
The Buckeyes are 4-4 overall in this event and have the second-best record of the four teams in the field — Kentucky and North Carolina are the other two teams included. The Buckeyes were on a three-game winning streak before losing to North Carolina last season at Madison Square Garden in overtime.
This is the 13th meeting all-time between the Buckeyes and Bruins, and the series is all knotted up at six, so the winner of this matchup will take the lead in the all-time series. The last time Ohio State played UCLA was a 77-70 win in 2020, with freshman Zed Key having one of his best games in his young career, recording 11 points and six rebounds.
Ohio State is on a heater offensively, scoring 80 or more points in six-straight games. However, UCLA has not given up 80 points yet this season. UCLA has failed to score 80 points in any game this year so far.
Whether or not you watched UCLA last season, it does not matter, as this is not the same team. The Bruins lost each of their top five scorers from last year’s team — Jamie Jaquez, Tyger Campbell, Amari Bailey, David Singleton, and Jaylen Clark — to either the NBA Draft or graduation.
This season, freshman Sebastian Mack has led UCLA in scoring, averaging 13.6 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.8 steals per game. He is shooting 38.4 percent from the field and 23.5 percent from three-point range.
Sophomore Adem Bona made the Pac-12 All-Freshman First Team and All-Defensive First Team last season. He is averaging 13.1 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game. The rebounds and blocks are good for first on the team, and he is second in scoring. Utah transfer Lazar Stefanovic is averaging 11.5 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. Dylan Andrews, who has taken over at point guard after sitting behind Campbell, is averaging 9.9 points and 4.3 assists per game.
The backcourt duo has led the way through the first ten games for the Buckeyes. Bruce Thornton has been one of the top point guards in the country to this point, averaging 18.5 points and 4.2 rebounds per game. He is also only averaging 0.8 turnovers in 31.3 minutes played.
Roddy Gayle Jr. is averaging 14.3 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game. However, Gayle is dealing with an injury and is questionable to play in this contest. Freshman Scotty Middleton is also questionable to play with an ankle injury he sustained late in the Penn State game. Middleton is averaging 6.0 points and 2.3 rebounds in just over 17 minutes a game. Chris Holtmann said he “feels good” about the progress each of them made this week, and considers both Gayle and Middleton “day-to-day.”
Both teams are coming into this one in a similar spot. Ohio State is coming off a loss to Penn State, who might be the worst team in the Big Ten, and UCLA is coming off a loss to Villanova, who has lost to Penn and Drexel and was without its best player, Justin Moore.
This isn’t a must-win by any means. The Buckeyes are 8-2, and the postseason is three months away. But this is a good litmus test to see how resilient this team is; as they were not very resilient last year. Every loss last season snowballed into another one, which meant Ohio State’s 2022-2023 season was essentially over by January.
A big factor in this game will be the health of Gayle and Middleton. Gayle has been the second-best player so far for the Buckeyes, and Middleton has been one of Ohio State’s top bench producers. If they cannot go, Baylor transfer Dale Bonner and freshman Devin Royal will be asked to do much more in this contest
This will be a game where the mix of Felix Okpara and Zed Key has to be utilized. They both played well against Penn State, but they can’t play together, and the mix of defense and offense when attacking Bona will be important in this one.
I am predicting a big game from Jamison Battle, with the transfer forward hitting over five three-pointers and scoring 25 or more points.
ESPN BPI: Ohio State 71.2%
Time: 3:00 p.m. ET