Basketball Preview: Ohio State Faces Florida in Fort Myers Tip-Off Championship Game

By Griffin Strom on November 24, 2021 at 8:35 am
E.J. Liddell
Matt Pendleton – USA TODAY Sports

Six days, three ranked opponents back-to-back-to-back for the Buckeyes.

Chris Holtmann’s preseason assertion that this would be the toughest non-conference schedule of his Ohio State tenure is starting to come into clear view ahead of Wednesday night’s meeting with 23rd-ranked Florida, as the Buckeyes will play their third consecutive AP Top 25 team in less than a week with No. 5 Duke waiting in the wings next Tuesday.

#23 Florida (4-0) Suncoast Credit Union Arena 8:30 p.m. FS1

Ohio State needed a game-winner from freshman guard Meechie Johnson to get past Seton Hall in Monday’s Fort Myers Tip-Off opener in Florida, but the Gators had no trouble putting California away in a 80-60 blowout effort immediately following the Buckeyes’ win. In a twist of fate, Ohio State will now get a chance to play the team it would have seen in the second round of last year’s NCAA tournament had the Buckeyes not been tripped up by No. 15 seed Oral Roberts in the opening round.

Florida went on to lose to Max Abmas and company as well, but seventh-year head coach Mike White has his Gators off to a 4-0 start to open the season with wins against Elon, Florida State, Milwaukee and Cal. Now the Gators get a Buckeye team they haven’t seen in six seasons, when Florida ended Ohio State’s season with a second-round defeat in the NIT.

Wednesday night’s matchup will be the first regular season meeting between the two programs in a decade, when 3rd-ranked Ohio State beat the No. 7 Gators in the second game of the 2011 season.

Three Things To Watch For

Can OSU stop another big game from an opposing two guard?

The Buckeyes have struggled to limit the impact of their opponent’s most prominent scoring guard in each of their last two games. Ohio State held Xavier’s Paul Scruggs under his season scoring average, but the fifth-year veteran scored six huge points down the stretch in the win – including a dunk in traffic over E.J. Liddell – and also secured a game-sealing steal late.

Against Seton Hall, it was Jared Rhoden that went off from the shooting guard position, pouring in 29 points to lead all scorers in a losing effort. Florida’s Myreon Jones put up 18 against the Buckeyes when he last saw them as a Penn State Nittany Lion last season, and he’s averaging the second-most points on the Gators so far this year with 12.5.

Can the new Ohio State transfers contribute as scorers?

Of the 10 Buckeyes that played against Seton Hall, three did not score a point for Ohio State. Those three players were Jamari Wheeler, Cedric Russell and Joey Brunk; the three new graduate transfers Ohio State added to its roster this offseason. Wheeler and Brunk both started the game, yet neither attempted a field goal, and Russell went 0-for-1 on the night.

Wheeler and Brunk were never expected to bring significant scoring to the mix necessarily, but not getting any points whatsoever from any of the three transfers seems a bit disappointing. The season is still in its early stages, though, and all three could get more comfortable as things progress.

Shots challenged at the rim

Ohio State and Florida are two of the nation's top 21 teams when it comes to shots blocked so far this season. With an average of 7.3 per game through its first four contests, Florida ranks ninth in the country, and 6-foot-11 big man Colin Castleton is averaging 3.5 of those alone for the Gators.

Despite the Buckeyes' comparative lack of size, they rank No. 21 in the nation with six rejections per game. Liddell is averaging 3.4 of those on his own after an eight-block game against Xavier.

Three Important Buckeyes

Joey Brunk

With a 7-foot-2 center starting for Seton Hall last time out, Brunk got his first start as a Buckeye. Even in a starting effort, Brunk played just seven minutes for Ohio State, didn’t score a point, corralled just one rebound and picked up two fouls. The Buckeyes would love to get more minutes out of the 6-foot-11 center, but the Indiana transfer must bring value to the team when he’s on the floor in order for that to happen. Given that Castleton is Florida’s top player, Brunk will surely log some minutes in Wednesday’s game, but exactly how effective he can be for Ohio State remains to be seen.

E.J. Liddell

It doesn’t appear that Liddell’s torrid start to the season is going to slow down anytime soon, as the Buckeyes’ star forward continues to put up huge numbers on a nightly basis. After a slight dip in scoring output with 13 points against Bowling Green and 17 against Xavier, Liddell displayed an increased level of offensive intensity from the opening tip against Seton Hall and finished the night with 28 points on 8-for-17 shooting – already his third effort of 25-plus points this year.

Maybe most impressive was that Liddell knocked down all 10 of his free throw attempts, including eight in the second half to help secure the win in a game that was ultimately decided by three points. Other players must continue to step up alongside Liddell on offense, but the Buckeyes will still need him to set the tone most nights if they expect to beat top-level opposition.

Justin Ahrens

Holtmann said he was hard on Ahrens after an 0-for-2 performance in the recent Xavier loss, but the senior captain seems to have gotten the message. Ahrens responded with a 17-point outing on 5-for-8 shooting from 3-point range in Monday’s win over Seton Hall, which was the most points Ahrens has put up since he scored 18 against Nebraska on Dec. 30, 2020. Perhaps it would be wishful thinking for Holtmann to expect Ahrens to maintain that pace, but his latest performance just might spark a hot streak for the sharpshooter.

Three Important Gators

Player Position Height Weight Stats
MYREON JONES G 6-3 175 12.5 PPG, 4.3 RPG
COLIN CASTLETON F/C 6-11 240 17 PPG, 9.8 RPG

Colin Castleton

The 6-foot-11 senior was a difference maker and a second-team All-SEC selection in his first season with Florida a year ago, but Castleton has taken his game up a notch in 2021-22. The 240-pound forward leads the team with averages of 17 points, 9.8 rebounds and 3.5 blocks per game.

Most recently, the Michigan transfer put up 16 points and eight boards in just 26 minutes during Florida’s win over California. He shot 6-for-11 from the floor in the process. Castleton will be a load to deal with down low for the Buckeyes, who are still figuring out their rotation at the center spot.

Myreon Jones

After cutting his teeth in the Big Ten at Penn State for the past three years, Jones has quickly made an impact for the Gators as a senior transfer, scoring 12.5 points per game thus far to rank behind only Castleton among Florida scorers.

The 6-foot-3, 175-pound guard averaged 15.3 points a game for the Nittany Lions last season, but shot just 39 percent from the floor. He’s upped that percentage to 45 this year. Jones has also hit nearly 42 percent of his 3-point attempts, which is particularly impressive given that he takes more than anyone else on the team with six a game.

Tyree Appleby

In his second season with Florida and third after sitting out the 2019-20 season as a Cleveland State transfer, Appleby is putting up his best numbers since he was an All-Horizon League selection with the Vikings in 2018-19. The 6-foot-1, 163-pound point guard is averaging 12 points, four assists and 3.5 rebounds per game in just under 30 minutes a night over four starts for the Gators.

Appleby is shooting 43.8 percent from the floor and 40 percent from the 3-point line, and he is fresh off a season-high 15-point performance against Cal in which he knocked down seven free throws.

How It Plays Out

The Buckeyes will likely throw several different defenders at Castleton, but the matchup does not look like a favorable one for Ohio State, which hasn't yet faced a team with a big man that could be as active a scorer as the Florida forward. The version of the Buckeyes that seemed poised to blow Seton Hall out for a stretch on Monday before letting the Pirates back in the game could finish on top of the Gators should such an effort be sustained for a full 40 minutes, but I expect Florida and its well-balanced roster makeup to edge out Ohio State in this one.

Prediction: Florida 77, Ohio State 70

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