After a nearly perfect first half, the Ohio State Buckeyes men’s basketball team won an uncomfortably close matchup against the Wisconsin Badgers, 65-57. This gets them another game against the Iowa Hawkeyes today, and also keeps Ohio State’s tournament hopes alive – even if the margins are incredibly thin to get there.
For the Buckeyes, the last matchup they played against the Hawkeyes was during their nine-game losing streak. On the road in Iowa City, the Buckeyes scored the ball fine but were unable to slow down the Hawkeyes from putting up points, losing the game 92-75. This was evident in the rebound battle. Iowa had 11 offensive rebounds, leading to more than their share of second-chance points.
If the Buckeyes want to continue their season, they will need to create the same magic they had in their previous win over the Hawkeyes. After beating the Hawkeyes last, the season fell off the rails. This time around, the Buckeyes have found an identity that should remain competitive against Fran McCaffrey’s squad.
There is not a team that has won the conference championship from the Buckeyes’ position, but if they can beat Iowa, anything is on the table.
The all-time series between the Buckeyes and Hawkeyes is tied at 83-83, which holds true again this year with the teams splitting the season series. McCaffrey and Holtmann have had a relatively back-and-forth battle, with them splitting the 10 games 5-5. Both teams need a win here, but the Buckeyes are playing for their season to an even greater extent than the Hawkeyes because a loss means the Buckeyes are done.
This game starts with the emergence of freshman point guard Bruce Thornton as a reliable scorer. Against Wisconsin, Thornton scored 15 points and has averaged 16.8 over the last five. In the win against Iowa earlier in the year, Thornton has zero points, and he scored 11 in the loss. If he can provide the steady hand he has shown, he is more than capable of winning the point guard battle tonight against Ahron Ulis, who has scored 12 in both matchups.
Defensively, the Buckeyes will be challenged in the front court. Kris Murray scored over 20 points in each matchup. If Ohio State’s Felix Okpara can’t keep him off the boards and use his length to alter shots, Murray will find easy work once again. Without Zed Key, the Buckeyes will also need Okpara to contribute offensively.
Over the last five games, Iowa has had a mixed bag of results, ranging from a 112-106 win over Michigan State, a 90-68 win over top-20 Indiana, and an 81-77 point loss to Nebraska, to highlight a few. When Iowa finds shots from the outside to pair with their interior offense, they can put up points with the best of them. They are ranked third in the KenPom Adjusted Offensive Efficiency Rating.
That means the Buckeyes will need to bring their A-game on both sides of the ball. In comes Brice Sensabaugh. Despite an inconsistent season, Sensabaugh scored 27 points against Iowa in that aforementioned victory. That is not a fair expectation, but if they can combine an efficient Sensabaugh performance with secret weapon Sean McNeil playing his best basketball, there is no reason the Buckeyes can’t find enough offense to win the game.
Ohio State will need continued strong performances from Justice Sueing, Eugene Brown III, and Roddy Gayle on the defensive end. This game will be an opportunity for the Buckeyes to keep building momentum, and if they win against Iowa this afternoon, the Buckeyes have a stretch of games against teams they have been competitive against this year. As we know, anything can happen in March.
Ohio State got the first win under their belt in Chicago. Winning five games in five days is no easy task, though. Where the Buckeyes do have an advantage is holding a game under their belt in a tournament setting. Ohio State will likely not come out shooting 70 percent from the floor, but they understand the intensity of how the game against Wisconsin ended.
There is no taking the foot off the gas in March, and there will be stretches of hot shooting to go with cold spells playing in an unfamiliar environment. This gives another slight advantage to the Buckeyes, having already played in the arena. There is nothing separating these two teams on the floor outside of whoever has the hot hand that night.
Ohio State needs to come out of the gate aggressively, rebounding the basketball and limiting the second-chance points for Iowa’s frontcourt. In each game between the schools this year, the winner in the rebounds column has won the matchup. that puts an incredibly pivotal emphasis on a stat category the Buckeyes have been inconsistent at best.
The other key stat is the turnover margin, Ohio State lost this battle in both games and has struggled in this area at times this season. Against Wisconsin, the Buckeyes lost that battle, and it was a major factor in the Badgers being able to close the gap in the second half. Thornton had four against the Badgers, and the team as a whole had 16. That will not cut it as the Buckeyes continue to advance in the Big Ten Tournament.
For the Hawkeyes, the game starts in the front court. Okpara was not a part of the game plan much in the first two games, and Kris Murray has scored on much more seasoned big men this season. Team defense is how the Buckeyes combat a dominant big, and when they show double teams being able to recover to their man.
Ohio State is playing much better basketball than they were heading into both matchups against Iowa. In the win, the Buckeyes snapped a four-game losing streak, and that same game started a nine-game losing streak that was ended against Illinois. With Ohio State finding more consistency in its identity of late. This is a litmus test to see how much progress this Buckeye basketball team has made.
Individually, the offense will have to be the key to this one. Against a team as efficient as Iowa, there can not be long stretches of offensive stagnation. If they fall behind as they did in the loss, Iowa can get out and run the Buckeyes off the court. That is why coming out of the gate like they did yesterday is important.
A strong defensive effort, timely shooting, and working to find easy baskets are how the Buckeyes will get this done. This is by no means an easy matchup, and Ohio State knows that having been on both sides of a lopsided scoreboard. If they win this game, it sets up a matchup against a Michigan State team that Ohio State can hang around.
All it will take is a complete performance on both ends of the court – and not blowing a second-half lead.
ESPN BPI: Ohio State 60.6%
Time: 2:30 p.m. ET
TV: Big Ten Network