After last year’s disappointing season, the Ohio State men’s basketball team seems to have started their New Year’s Resolutions early, starting the season 10-2 (1-1 in Big Ten conference play). Now, the Buckeyes hope to close out non-conference play and the 2023 calendar year on a high note, as they travel to Cleveland to face the West Virginia Mountaineers out of the Big 12 in the Legends of Basketball Showcase at Rocket Mortgage Arena on Saturday. The Buckeyes should be well-rested, having enjoyed some time off for the holidays following their Dec. 21 win over the New Orleans Privateers.
With head coach Chris Holtmann and starting center Felix Okpara out with the flu, Ohio State’s offense struggled to get going in their Dec. 21 matchup against New Orleans. The Buckeyes hit just one of their first six shots and four of their first 12. Zed Key, starting in place of Okpara, got himself into foul trouble early and sat most of the half with two fouls. Against a stronger opponent, the Buckeyes would have been in trouble.
Halfway through the first half, the Buckeyes held a narrow 3-point lead over a team who lost by 33 points to Minnesota on the road, and heading into halftime, the Buckeyes led just 31-17, shooting just 36.4% overall in the first half.
Even in the face of offensive struggles, the most concerning moment of the game came when Bruce Thornton briefly headed to the locker room with a foot injury, eventually returning to the bench but not the game.
Thornton, who has scored in double figures in all but one game this season, leads the team in scoring with an average of 17.4 points per game. Thankfully, he remained out of the game against New Orleans only out of an abundance of caution and has been cleared to play against West Virginia.
The Buckeyes turned things around in the second half, with four players finishing the game with double digits (Jamison Battle with 17—his third-highest point total of the season, Key with 16, Bruce Thornton with 11 and Dale Bonner with 10) to carry the Buckeyes to a 78-36 victory over the Privateers. Freshman forward Devin Royal was also a key playmaker, with seven rebounds (three of them offensive) in just 15 minutes of play.
Still, where OSU struggled on offense, they shone on defense. Now, they’ll look to fire on all cylinders, with Holtmann, Thornton and Okpara all set to return against the Mountaineers, who enter the contest 5-7, and 0-3 in neutral site games, under interim first-year coach Josh Eilert.
In their last outing, WVU defeated Toledo, 91-81, on Dec. 23 to snap a two-game losing streak. Guard RaeQuan Battle led the team with 29 points (22 of which came in the first half), with senior forward Quinn Slazinski putting up 14 points, senior guard Kerr Kriisa putting up 12 points and 10 assists, and Noah Farrakhan, the senior guard who transferred from Eastern Michigan, also putting up 12 points.
Battle, who transferred from Montana State and is newly eligible following a temporary restraining order against the NCAA in enforcing its transfer policies, is making waves in courts of law and courts of basketball, and he looks to be the offensive key for the Mountaineers. He’s put up 29 points in both of the Mountaineers’ last two games (the only two in which he has been eligible), shooting 48.6%.
The other playmakers for West Virginia have been Slazinski, who is averaging 15.9 points per game, Farrakhan, who is newly eligible himself and is putting up 14.3 points per game, and Kriisa, with an average of 11.2 points per game. The Mountaineers will be without star center Jesse Edwards, who is out with a wrist injury.
Still, Eilert is looking to turn things around for his team against OSU. WVU has yet to log a marquee win this season, and they desperately need to add a victory against the Buckeyes to their resume.
West Virginia has won the last three matchups against Ohio State (2008, 2010 and most recently in 2019), but this squad is a different team than the Mountaineers of days gone by. Plagued by injuries and illness under an interim first-year coach, this team has some really talented players, but they haven’t quite found their groove as a team. Now, with Battle on the court, they’re starting to jell. They looked less disjointed against Toledo than they did earlier in the season, despite almost squandering an 18-point lead.
The Buckeyes still shouldn’t have too much of a problem holding off the Mountaineers. WVU has struggled defensively, and they have yet to play a game with a full roster. West Virginia has struggled defensively, and OSU will be their toughest test to date. They’ll have to keep the ball away from Thornton and Jamison Battle if they’re going to eke out a win.
Though the Buckeyes struggled offensively against New Orleans, they bounced back in the second half, and coming off a long holiday break, expect to see them ready to go out of the gate. Couple this with the Buckeyes’ defensive domination, and they should be able to shut down WVU’s offensive playmakers to walk away with the win in Cleveland.
ESPN BPI: Ohio State 82.2%
Time: 7 p.m. ET