Ohio State hasn’t won a game since Dec. 21. Heck, it hasn’t even cracked 60 points since beating Kentucky weeks ago.
What was once a statement victory seems as though it took place an eternity ago. Since then, the Buckeyes have lost consecutively to West Virginia, Wisconsin, Maryland and Indiana, marking the second year in a row that they’ve endured a midseason skid in January.
On Tuesday night, Ohio State has a prime opportunity to end the winless drought.
The No. 21 Buckeyes (11-5, 1-4 Big Ten) will play host to Nebraska with tip-off scheduled for 6:30 p.m. at the Schottenstein Center. It’s as much of a must-win game as there can be for a team plummeting in the top 25 facing off against an unranked, sub-.500 opponent. The Cornhuskers have a first-year head coach – Fred Hoiberg – and went through a monstrous roster turnover in the offseason. So far this season, they’re 7-9 with a 2-3 record in the Big Ten.
Though Ohio State is reeling in an extended lull, it should find a way to rediscover what it once was against an overmatched Nebraska team that most picked to finish among the bottom couple teams in the conference before the season.
“Toughness – that's got to be our identity,” Kyle Young said on Monday. “And that's something we've maybe lacked a little bit in this little stretch. So we're trying to work on to really get our edge back, just our mojo.”
What To Watch For
Even factoring in coaching changes, rarely do high-major teams have as many departures and additions in a single offseason as Hoiberg's team. Because of that, there’s no use remembering what happened in last year’s matchup, which ended as a 10-point Ohio State victory.
Nebraska’s top four scorers include a Florida Gulf Coast transfer, Salt Lake Community College transfer, Robert Morris transfer and Western Nebraska Community College transfer.
“A lot of new players, but a veteran group kind of all in the same,” Holtmann said. “Fred's doing a great job with this group. Obviously they've got some really impressive wins – Purdue, Iowa – here of late, really in the last month. They've got a really dynamic group of guards that are older and veteran, for the most part. A really dynamic point guard and wings that have some experience and are really playing well.”
Almost everything Nebraska does remotely well comes through its backcourt. Its five top scorers are all guards who stand between 6-foot-2 and 6-foot-6, allowing the Cornhuskers to push the ball. They have the Big Ten’s fastest adjusted tempo, per Bart Torvik, meaning there’ll be a clash of styles on Tuesday since Ohio State is the third-slowest team in the conference.
Inside, the Buckeyes should have a notable advantage, for Hoiberg wasn’t able to bring in much size before the season. Only two Nebraska players in the rotation are listed as forwards, with the rest being guards.
Kaleb Wesson and Kyle Young should feast on the Cornhuskers down low.
Three Important Huskers
Hoiberg brought in the 6-foot-5, 195-pound guard to Nebraska from Florida Gulf Coast to play his final year in college as a Cornhusker, and the move has paid off. Cheatham is averaging a team high 13.1 points per game to go along with 4.3 rebounds and 1.3 assists in a career-high 33.3 minutes per game. Able to get to the rim, he’s shooting 50.7 percent from the field and 36.6 percent from beyond the 3-point arc.
Wesson will likely find himself matched up against Ouedraogo to open the game, which will be advantageous for the Buckeyes. At 6-foot-9 and 260 pounds, size won’t be a problem for Ouedraogo, who averages 5.8 points and a team-high 6.4 rebounds in 20.8 minutes per game. Keeping Wesson and Young from scoring inside and grabbing offensive boards could be an issue, though. Ouedraogo is the sole starting forward on a team that has struggled mightily on the interior.
In preparation for Tuesday’s game, Mack stuck out to Holtmann. The sophomore point guard plays a team-high 35.2 minutes per game and does a bit of everything, averaging 12.7 points, 6.8 assists and 4.9 rebounds. He’ll be a tough test for CJ Walker and DJ Carton.
Three Important Buckeyes
Against Indiana, Young returned just 13 days removed from having his appendix taken out and had two points and five rebounds in 22 minutes. It was a bit of a quieter performance from the junior forward, which is attributable to the injury.
“I get tired a lot quicker right now, and they said that was something coming off the appendix surgery that was going to come with it,” Young said. “I was expecting it. I just tried to play through it, but I get tired a lot quicker.”
Against Nebraska’s thin frontcourt, even not yet fully recovered, Young could thrive.
Though Carton has been battling turnover issues, Holtmann hinted at the possibility of starting him alongside Walker, which would likely send Duane Washington Jr. to the bench. If that happens, he’d have a chance to play off the ball, which his coach believes could help.
“I just think CJ, in general, is probably best right now at running our team,” Holtmann said. “I think they play well off of each other and it alleviates some of the ball-handling for a freshman that I think hopefully will bring DJ up a little bit. That's why we play them together.”
After a tough offensive game against Indiana, Wesson should return to form on Tuesday against a team with overmatched big men. Nebraska simply doesn’t have forwards to guard him, which could lead to a big game.
Three Numbers To Know
Nebraska has averaged 10.5 fewer rebounds per game than its opponents this season, highlighting an area Ohio State should be able to attack with Young, Wesson and others. The Cornhuskers also rank 325th in the nation in offensive rebounding rate and 346th in opponent offensive rebounding rate.
With such a guard-heavy team, the Cornhuskers don’t shoot an overwhelming amount of free throws (132nd-best free-throw rate). But when they get to the line, they’ve had issues converting points. They have made 58.9 percent of their free throws, which is the third-worst mark in the country.
Interestingly, Nebraska also has the second-best opposing free-throw rate in the nation. Hoiberg’s team rarely sends opponents to the line.
While Ohio State’s chief weakness is turnovers, Nebraska's offense fares well in the department.
The Cornhuskers have a turnover rate of 15.1 percent, the eighth-best mark in the country and tops in the Big Ten. Given the Buckeyes’ struggles controlling the ball, that’s an area to watch on Tuesday.
- Ohio State ended its five-game losing streak last year by beating Nebraska. It’ll try to do that two years in a row on Tuesday night.
- The Buckeyes have a 16-4 all-time record against the Cornhuskers.
- Holtmann on Ohio State’s reliance on its veterans: “Moving forward from here on out, I think where we go will be in large part due to them and their leadership. It's obviously on all of us, but they'll dictate a lot of it.”
- E.J. Liddell on his team’s recent offensive issues: “I just feel like we're all a connected group and the ball's going to find a way in the basket sooner or later because we've all been connected throughout the losses. We've been here through the wins. And I feel like we're going to stay connected throughout the season. It's just a little drought, but it's nothing we can't figure out.”
How It Plays Out
This shouldn’t be close. Both metrics – KenPom and Bart Torvik – and a betting line of minus-17.5 points favor a hefty Ohio State win. However, since the Buckeyes haven’t exactly been playing to the level they should in the past couple weeks, the game could be closer than most in Columbus prefer. With wins against Purdue and Iowa in the past month, Nebraska showed it can top better teams on a given night.
But because of the size difference and the talent gap, we’re picking a double-digit Ohio State victory.
Prediction: Ohio State 77, Nebraska 67