Ohio State's three-game road trip comes to an end Saturday in New York City, where the Buckeyes are set to play a Minnesota team that has failed to live up to expectations this season.
|Minnesota (14-7, 3-5)||Madison Square Garden||Noon||BTN|
The Golden Gophers are coming off of an 11-point loss to a Maryland team that Ohio State defeated by 22 just more than a week ago, and are without two of their better players in Amir Coffey and Reggie Lynch.
Coffey suffered a shoulder injury in a Jan. 3 win over Illinois, and is out indefinitely, which is a significant blow to the Minnesota squad, as the sophomore guard is still considered a future NBA prospect. Lynch, on the other hand, is suspended amid an investigation into multiple sexual assault allegations made against him. Like Coffey, his last game came against the Fighting Illini on Jan. 3.
Since the win over Illinois, the Golden Gophers – who entered the season ranked as the No. 15 team in the country – are 1-4, with the lone win coming over Penn State on Jan. 15.
Without Coffey or Lynch on the floor, the Golden Gophers are led by superstar forward Jordan Murphy, one of the leading candidates for Big Ten Player of the Year.
Murphy averages a double-double, pouring in 18.1 points and tearing down 12.1 rebounds per game, while also ranking second on the team in steals with 20 on the season. Standing 6-foot-6, 250 pounds, Murphy has the ability to dominate the post, but has also shown the ability to step outside and hit a jumper from time to time.
Also giving Minnesota critical production is veteran point guard Nate Mason. The senior from Georgia is the team's second-leading scorer, averaging 15.6 points per game while leading the team in three-point shooting (41.5 percent) and assists per game (4.14).
Since the injury to Coffey, Mason has seen his minutes drastically increase this season, as the veteran played the full 40 minutes in the 77-66 loss to Maryland on Thursday night in College Park.
With Coffey and Lynch out, the only other Golden Gopher averaging double digits in scoring has been guard Dupree McBrayer, who averages 10.3 points per contest. Like Mason, McBrayer is a threat from behind the three-point line, as he makes nearly 40 percent of his attempt from long range.
Head coach Richard Pitino uses a primarily eight-man rotation with forward and Texas A&M transfer Davonte Fitzgerald as the sixth man off the bench.
The Buckeyes needed every bit of production it could get on Wednesday from players not named Keita Bates-Diop, as the Ohio State star struggled to find his offensive game against Northwestern.
With Bates-Diop scoring just 10 points on just 4-of-12 shooting, a number of other Buckeyes picked up the scoring slack. Jae'Sean Tate and C.J. Jackson each pitched in 12 points, while Micah Potter played his best game since November, connecting on all five of his shot attempts, leading to a team-high 13 points in the victory over the Wildcats.
The performance was perhaps Ohio State's biggest 'team' win of the year, although it didn't come with some lumps, especially from the Buckeye freshmen.
Musa Jallow played just three minutes in which he committed two turnovers, while Kyle Young did not see the floor, his first game not seeing action since a win over William & Mary that he missed due to injury.
Freshman forward and starter Kaleb Wesson also struggled at times against Northwestern, connecting on just 3-of-8 shots from the floor in 18 minutes of action, while a number of his shots were blocked.
Holtmann attributed Wesson's struggles to simply being a freshman playing on the road.
"He's a freshman and he is going to go through some ups and downs. We have got to do a good job as coaches to get him playing better," Holtmann said after the win over Northwestern. "He's got to embrace that himself. I thought he competed pretty well defensively tonight. I don't want to discount (that)."
Not to be lost in the shuffle has been the improved play of Andre Wesson off the bench. The sophomore has cut down on his turnovers in Big Ten play and has started to connect on some critical outside shots, including one against the Wildcats that ended a brief NU run. Add in the shooting and consistency of Andrew Dakich off the bench, and Ohio State is beginning to get the lift it needs from its role players, especially when Bates-Diop struggles.
How It Plays Out
Ohio State is one of the hottest teams not just in the Big Ten, but in the country. After a slow start to the season that featured back-to-back losses in heartbreaking fashion to Clemson and Butler, the Buckeyes appear to have found the confidence that is needed to win tight games late.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Golden Gophers have struggled to recover from the losses of Coffey and Lynch, and are a program dealing with more than just on-the-court issues.
The Buckeyes enter the game as the No. 22 team in the country in the Associated Press poll, while appearing as high as No. 12 overall in Ken Pomeroy's advanced statistical rating system as of Friday night. In that same ranking system, Minnesota checks in at No. 66.
Minnesota has the athleticism to play with and even beat Ohio State, but the Golden Gophers' lack of depth and consistency gives the Buckeyes a slight advantage.
Prediction: Ohio State 78, Minnesota 69