On paper, the battle between Ohio State and Indiana’s frontcourts figured to be a wash.
On the court at Assembly Hall on Thursday night, that was not the case. Not even close.
Trayce Jackson-Davis dominated inside as the Hoosiers blew out the 13th-ranked Buckeyes 67-51 in Bloomington, Indiana. If the 27 points Indiana’s star forward tallied weren’t telling enough, the 38-10 scoring differential in the paint might be all you need to know about why the final score was so lopsided.
On the other end, E.J. Liddell mustered just 11 points on 3-for-12 shooting for Ohio State.
“They certainly controlled the paint, both offensively and defensively, really,” Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann said after the game. "I thought E.J. got bodied and knocked off a couple of his shots, but he’s also gotta kinda play through – not play through contact – but he’s gotta play to score the ball. But I think in general, again, we just got to find ways to put him in better spots. But the paint was the difference, for sure.”
Just 1-3 against the Buckeyes in his three-year career entering the contest, Jackson-Davis had his best performance against the scarlet and gray to date, adding 12 rebounds and five blocks onto his 11-for-17 shooting effort. Jackson-Davis led all players with a plus-minus of 21 for the game, and his impact hardly waned throughout the full 40 minutes.
So good was Jackson-Davis that only minimal scoring contributions were required from the rest of the Hoosier roster. Race Thompson, the other starting big man for Indiana, put forth a solid effort of his own, but still scored 16 points fewer than Jackson-Davis as the Hoosiers’ second-leading scorer on the night.
For the Buckeyes, Liddell was expected to be Ohio State’s answer for Jackson-Davis. Both first-team All-Big Ten performers on different ballots a season ago, their numbers were eerily similar entering Thursday’s contest. While Jackson-Davis came in averaging 19.3 points and 8.2 rebounds per game, Liddell entered with averages of 19.6 points and 7.3 boards.
The former lived up to the billing and then some, but Liddell couldn’t keep pace. Five of his 12 shots were 3-pointers, with Liddell hitting just one, and he had the second-worst plus-minus among all Buckeyes at -20. It was the second straight game in which Liddell had an off night for the Buckeyes, as their star forward shot 2-for-14 against Nebraska on Sunday to finish with a season-low 10 points.
“I don’t want to speak for him. I think in general he doesn’t quite look the same, but also I think tonight they really defended him well,” Holtmann said. "We gotta figure out how to get him into a few better spots and I think he’s gotta impose himself a little bit more, really, in terms of some of the effort plays that he can make to create some easy baskets. That’s the biggest challenge for him right now.”
True freshman guard Malaki Branham’s 35-point explosion helped bail out Liddell and the Buckeyes in that contest, as Ohio State escaped Lincoln with an eight-point overtime win, but no Buckeye could match that sort of Herculean effort on Thursday.
Branham led the way for the Buckeyes once again, but his point total was just 13 on 5-for-13 shooting. Branham was the lone Buckeye with a worse plus-minus than Liddell, ending the night at -23 in a game-high 34 minutes of action.
Holtmann threw several defenders at Jackson-Davis throughout the game, but none had much success. Liddell was visibly frustrated with sophomore forward Zed Key’s lack of a box out on Jackson-Davis on one second-half put-back, and the potential All-American seemed to beat the Buckeyes down the floor to score a number of transition baskets. .
Key played just 15 minutes, nearly nine fewer than his season average, and the Buckeyes’ second-leading scorer on the season managed just two points from the free-throw line as he shot 0-for-2 from the floor.
Fifth-year forward Kyle Young played 17 minutes in his first game back from a non-COVID-19 related illness, extending his layoff from live game action to 26 days, but he didn’t make much of an impact off the bench. Averaging 10 points and 6.7 rebounds per game entering the game, Young finished with just three points and two boards against Indiana. Three of Young’s four shot attempts were 3-pointers, and only one found the bottom of the net.
“I thought he gave us good minutes, he just didn't quite look himself yet,” Holtmann said. “Obviously we need him. He's gonna be really important for us.”
Holtmann even utilized former Indiana center Joey Brunk more than usual, but the one-time Hoosier still played just eight minutes as Ohio State looked for answers down low. On one mid-post face-up by Jackson-Davis in the first half, one blow-by dribble was all it took to get around his former teammate for a one-handed dunk despite two Buckeye defenders challenging him at the rim.
In modern college basketball, one would not expect a team that shot 2-for-15 from the 3-point line to be holding an 18-point lead in the final two minutes of a high-level game. But that’s exactly what unfolded Thursday, as Ohio State’s 29.6 percent connection rate on 27 3-point attempts was not good enough to keep the Buckeyes in the game.
Even as the Buckeyes shot 26.1 percent in the second half, they managed to hang around down just a possession or two until the final eight minutes. Indiana closed out the game on a 15-3 run, and Ohio State appeared to run out of gas somewhere along the way.
The Buckeyes shot nearly 7 percent worse from the floor than they had against any other opponent this season, and their 51 points were 14 fewer than their previous lowest output entering the night. It seems more than plausible that their long layoff had something to do with that, but Ohio State can’t make a habit out of coming up as small inside as it did on Thursday.
“We gotta get some guys rested, we gotta learn how we can do some things better. Bottom line is, tonight our offense really failed us,” Holtmann said. “I thought defensively we didn't play as smart as we needed to all the time, but tonight was really about our lack of offensive performance.”
Given the size and physicality Ohio State will see on a nightly basis in the Big Ten, there’s no doubt Holtmann and company will place an emphasis on interior play after their showing against the Hoosiers.