Nebraska's offense lay face down on the floor of the Husker family parlor, knife in its back. A spilled goblet of corn lay strewn about the overturned rocking chair, as the shadow of Lil' Red emerged from the kitchen door. Though the smile permanently etched on his face wouldn't, couldn't, vanish, Lil' held his inflatable plastic hands over his inflatable plastic face and began to sob giant popcorn tears. As he cradled a 3-16 shooting performance from three against Ohio State, only one word could be heard escaping from his PowerBelt air circulation system-generated head: "Who?"
Who indeed! For at that very moment one Chris Holtmann sat smugly in the postgame interview room, mulling over the perfect crime. He knew the true culprit, but his face and suit betrayed nothing about Ohio State's dark intentions.
Ohio State men's basketball has just beaten the Nebraska Cornhuskers in dominant fashion, 75-54. Winners of seven of their last nine, a big part of the reason why the Buckeyes have had at least a semi-return to form is because their defense is no longer a side dish in the murder buffet that Ohio State is serving up, it is indeed the main course.
But who, exactly, is the waiter (of death!)? Is it Kyle Young, stalwart, often-injured inside presence? Is it Kaleb Wesson, he of the best all-around game on the team? Is it his brother Andre, jack-of-all-trades with ability to dominate at any time? Is it Duane Washington, Jr., who sometimes does try on defense you just have to look real close, God, get off his back already?
No, no, no, and definitely no. But also yes, yes, yes, and okay honestly still no.
In Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, master detective Hercule Poirot is on a bus or a jetski or something and figures out that Everybody Did It in one of the most well-known twists in literature history which I don't feel even a tiny bit bad about spoiling because the story is 86 years old.
And sure, while it doesn't take a Poirot to figure out that good team defense is leading Ohio State to kick some ass as of late and return, that Ohio State looks this good(ish) after looking so incredibly bad for several weeks is a testament to just how valuable team defense has been to Holtmann and company.
E.J. Liddell, for example, had five blocks in a game that was otherwise pretty meh offensively (he scored 8, going 3-10 from the floor). But his increased playing time was a result of Kyle Young's injury, and he made the most of it on the defensive end of the court during key offensive series. Consistency isn't really Liddell's thing right now, and hell, it isn't really Ohio State men's basketball's thing this season in general, but if everyone contributes those plays can add up.
Case in point: against Nebraska, the Buckeyes had a nearly five minute stretch in the first half where they didn't hit a single field goal, missing 11 shots in a row and only managing four points from free throws. But it should also be noted that during that timeframe, Nebraska only was able to close their deficit by two points, thanks to some excellent defensive plays from the likes of Liddell and Luther Muhammad.
And, okay, yes, some really piss-poor shooting on the part of the Cornhuskers. It is valid to point out that a truly competent team could make Ohio State pay for shooting lulls like they had last night, but the overall point is that with an inconsistent offensive identity, the Buckeyes need to lean on elements of what they do well; right now that appears to be firmly rooted in playing aggressive team defense.
This is a relatively new trend for a team that has struggled at times defensively throughout the season, but as Colin pointed out after their game against Purdue, it's a welcome one:
Moments after Holtmann called for his guards to pressure the Boilermakers’ backcourt so as not to allow any space, CJ Walker stole the ball and raced down the court. He finished the transition opportunity with a layup on which Purdue was called for goaltending, giving Ohio State a 15-6 lead less than six minutes after the tip.
That single play in the Buckeyes’ 68-52 defeat of Purdue at the Schottenstein Center both helped set the tone and was a microcosm of what turned into statistically their most effective defensive performance of the Big Ten slate.
The following game saw the Buckeyes get blown out against Luka Garza and Iowa, but a good defensive effort against Maryland followed by a lockdown performance against Nebraska shows what this team is capable of.
That's going to count for a lot, particularly as the team rounds the corner into the tournaments that will ultimately determine whether this season was a success or disappointment.
As long as players like Liddell, Muhammad, and company can keep it up, they'll have a chance to remind people in March what it was like to root for this team in November.