Basketball Preview: Ohio State Seeks First Road Win at Minnesota in Seven Seasons

By Griffin Strom on January 27, 2022 at 8:35 am
Ohio State basketball
Doral Chenoweth/Dispatch/USA TODAY NETWORK

Eleven days after their last Big Ten game, the Buckeyes are back in action against a conference foe Thursday as they head to Minneapolis for a date with the Golden Gophers.

It’s been nine days since Ohio State played a game at all, as COVID-19 issues postponed the Buckeyes’ scheduled matchup with Nebraska this past Saturday, but their upcoming opponent has been no stranger to similar snags as of late. Minnesota canceled a meeting with Penn State last week due to a COVID outbreak in the program, but pulled off a win against Rutgers on Saturday, 68-65, despite a number of critical absences.

Minnesota (11-5, 2-5 B1G) Williams Arena 8 p.m. ESPN

That win was Minnesota’s first of the month, as the Gophers had lost four in a row to Big Ten teams before that. Expectations were not high for Ben Johnson’s first season following the firing of Richard Pitino and subsequent roster exodus, but despite the Gophers’ 2-5 record in conference play so far, they have more than one impressive win on their 11-5 résumé overall.

“Definitely want to go there and get a dub against a good team. Their record in the Big Ten might not reflect it, and people might not think they’re a great team, but they are a really good team and they can compete with anyone,” Buckeye forward E.J. Liddell said Wednesday.

Minnesota beat Michigan by double digits in Ann Arbor on Dec. 11, and the Gophers’ transfer-laden roster also notched wins over Power 5 opponents Pittsburgh and Mississippi State in its non-conference schedule amid a surprising 7-0 start to the year. One of Minnesota’s most notable exploits so far this season might have come in a loss, as the Gophers lost by just two points to the currently 10th-ranked team in a razor-thin defeat to Michigan State on Jan. 12.

Ohio State, which is 2-2 in its last four conference games prior to a 46-point win over IUPUI last week, is just 1-3 in its past four meetings against Minnesota, and has lost four of its last five when playing at Williams Arena. The Buckeyes have not won on the road at Minnesota since the 2014-15 season.

What to Watch For

Milestones for Holtmann and Liddell

Both Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann and Liddell could achieve landmark accomplishments on Thursday. Holtmann is sitting on 99 wins in his Ohio State career, and a victory at Minnesota would make him just the seventh coach in Buckeye history to hit the triple-digit mark. Liddell is just 12 points shy of 1,000 career points in the program, and given his season average of 19.4 per game, it’s a safe bet he hits that mark against the Gophers. Liddell would be the 60th player in program history to score 1,000 points in scarlet and gray.

“This milestone means a lot, honestly,” Liddell said. “Coming here, making a big impact for the team – I think I saw I was gonna be the 60th player in history to do that – that’s just a pretty cool experience to have my name in the record books and whatnot.”

A potentially shorthanded Buckeye backcourt

Two Ohio State guards will be game-time decisions on Thursday, as both Jamari Wheeler and Meechie Johnson are recovering from injuries. Johnson has missed the past three games due to a facial fracture and concussion suffered in practice a couple weeks ago, but Wheeler’s issue is more recent. A foot injury has kept the Penn State transfer out of practice as of late, and his absence could be a significant blow given that he’s started all 16 games for the Buckeyes at point guard this season.

Key contributors could return for Gophers

Minnesota had to cancel a game last week due to a COVID-19 outbreak in the program, and between that issue and other injuries, its lineup in Saturday’s return against Rutgers looked drastically different than usual. Three starters were out for the Gophers, who managed to win the contest anyway, but it’s possible that all three will be back against the Buckeyes. Per Ben Johnson’s latest update on Wednesday, starting Gopher guard E.J. Stephens will return, while starting forwards Jamison Battle and Eric Curry will likely be game-time decisions.

Three Important Buckeyes

Jimmy Sotos

Should Wheeler and Johnson miss Thursday’s game, you can expect to see a whole lot more of Bucknell transfer and second-year Buckeye guard Jimmy Sotos. Sotos is averaging just 9.1 minutes per game, and has been a healthy scratch in five of Ohio State’s 16 games this season, but the veteran demonstrated his ability to orchestrate the Buckeye offense last time out against IUPUI with nine assists, his most in a scarlet and gray uniform. Minnesota will be a big step up in competition, but Sotos is the closest thing to a pure point guard on the Buckeye roster besides Wheeler.

Malaki Branham

Branham started the month off with a barn-burning 35-point effort against Nebraska that launched a four-game stretch in which he averaged 20.5 points for the Buckeyes. Since then, the freshman has cooled off in the past couple contests. Branham is 4-for-14 from the floor with 15 combined points in the last two games, but perhaps he can drum up another prolific performance as the Buckeyes return from their second COVID-related layoff of the season.

Eugene Brown

The sophomore guard had a career-best effort against IUPUI, scoring 14 points off the bench and making an impact on both ends of the floor. Most significant about his performance was that he started the second half in place of senior forward Justin Ahrens, who has struggled mightily in his past seven appearances. Brown may not usurp Ahrens in the starting lineup, but it isn’t totally out of the realm of possibility at some point if Brown continues to look sharp for the Buckeyes amid Ahrens’ cold streak.

Three Important Gophers

Player Position Height Weight Stats
PAYTON WILLIS G 6-4 200 16.5 PPG, 3.9 APG
E.J. STEHPENS G 6-3 175 12 PPG, 3.5 RPG
LUKE LOWE G 6-4 185 7.3 PPG, 2.7 APG
JAMISON BATTLE F 6-7 225 18 PPG, 6.3 RPG
ERIC CURRY F 6-9 240 8.7 PPG, 6.8 RPG

Jamison Battle

During his first year in the Big Ten after two seasons with George Washington, Battle’s productivity has not dropped off at all despite the stiffer level of competition. The Gophers’ leading scorer, Battle is averaging 18 points on nearly 48 percent shooting from the floor and 37.5 percent from 3-point range. Battle hardly comes off the floor for Minnesota, averaging 36.8 minutes per game, but the 6-foot-7, 225-pound forward missed the last game for the Gophers due to a non-COVID illness. Battle was reportedly still feeling the illness as of Wednesday, but will certainly be dangerous if he does return.

“He has good positional size and versatility, but he can really, really score the ball,” Holtmann said. “He was able to be really productive at a really high level of play, and I think that’s allowed him to transition here well. They’ve needed him, too. He’s had to play a major role.”

Payton Willis

A sixth-year guard in his second stint with the Gophers after originally transferring in from Vanderbilt, transferring out to the College of Charleston and returning to Minnesota again this year, Willis is having the most success of his career in 2021-22. At 6-foot-4, Willis is the Gophers’ second-leading scorer (16.5 points per game), their top 3-point shooter (42.4 percent) and leading assist man (3.9 per game). Willis was vital in engineering Minnesota’s win over Rutgers this past weekend, scoring a career-high 32 points and knocking down eight 3-pointers in the process.

E.J. Stephens

After missing Minnesota’s most recent game, Stephens will be back against the Buckeyes, which should give the Gophers a considerable boost. Stephens has started 15 games for Minnesota this season and is third on the team with an average of 12 points per game. Another first-year Gopher from the transfer portal, the 6-foot-3 guard played four years at Lafayette before coming to Minnesota.

How It Plays Out

Line: Ohio State -6.5, O/U 138.5

The top-tier teams in the Big Ten have all beaten Minnesota this season, although it’s to the Gophers’ credit that none of their five losses have come against subpar competition. If Ohio State wants to count itself among the top teams in the league, it should be able to take care of business Thursday, despite their potentially short-handed backcourt and recent road record at Minnesota.

Prediction: Ohio State 74, Minnesota 67

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