Basketball Preview: Ohio State in Desperate Need of Win on the Road At Nebraska With Buckeyes At Risk Of Dropping Five Straight

By Griffin Strom on January 18, 2023 at 8:35 am
Ohio State basketball
Joseph Scheller/Columbus Dispatch

Ohio State needs a win in a bad way.

Nebraska (9-9, 2-5 B1G) Pinnacle Bank Arena 7 p.m. BTN

A few weeks ago, you could’ve penciled in a Buckeye victory against a Nebraska team that ranks among the Big Ten’s worst in terms of overall (9-9) and conference record (2-5). But after four straight Ohio State losses, including a home defeat to last-place Minnesota last week, any presumption of a Buckeye win may need to be reconsidered.

Fred Hoiberg’s Huskers have yielded mixed results so far in 2022-23. Nebraska’s most impressive moments include a win over then-No. 10 Creighton, a 16-point blowout of Iowa and a three-point overtime defeat to then-No. 4 Purdue. But in the past eight days, Nebraska has struggled to stay competitive against Big Ten opposition, with Illinois routing the Huskers by 26 and the Boilermakers notching a 73-55 victory in their second meeting with Hoiberg and company. 

Nebraska lost its two top scorers from a year ago with Bryce McGowens and Alonzo Verge both turning pro, but Chris Holtmann believes “this is the best Nebraska team we’ve faced,” given the Huskers are just one win away from tying the program’s highest win total in the Hoiberg era.

Still, a fifth straight loss for the Buckeyes and a second defeat to one of the Big Ten’s two bottomfeeders in the past week would be catastrophic.

Need to Know

Switching up the starters

Holtmann has employed a different starting five in each game during the Buckeyes’ four-game skid. Zed Key hasn’t started since injuring his shoulder early in the Purdue loss, and the Buckeyes have tried both Eugene Brown and Felix Okpara in Key’s place over the past three contests. Against Rutgers, both Key and Brice Sensabaugh started on the bench, with the freshman falling out of the starting lineup for the first time since Dec. 3. The Buckeye bench outscored Rutgers’ own 38-2 in that matchup, and the starters only mustered 26 points. However, Holtmann said he liked the defensive edge that unit brought to the table.

“Obviously, we had trouble scoring there in the first four minutes. Some of that was on us, some of that was on them,” Holtmann said. “But I thought defensively, we set a tone, which was good. I think we have a number of guys that can start. So I don't know that that's the lineup we'll stick with or change. We have a number of guys that are going to play in that sweet spot at 20 to 28 minutes, like starter-type minutes.”

Banged up Huskers

Nebraska took on the No. 3 team in the country without two of its regular starters on Friday. Both North Dakota State transfer guard Sam Griesel (hip) and Alabama transfer forward Juwan Gary (shoulder) were out against Purdue, and the Boilermakers put an 18-point beating on the Huskers at Mackey Arena. In place of Griesel and Gary, Nebraska started redshirt freshman guard Denim Dawson and 6-foot-10 big man Wilhelm Breidenbach, who are averaging a combined 5.8 points per game this season.

UPDATE: Griesel will is available for Wednesday night's matchup.

Bad offense on both sides lately

Nebraska has the second-lowest-scoring offense in the Big Ten (66.4 points per game) and shoots the worst collective 3-point percentage in the league (30.1%). The Huskers have managed just 56 points or fewer in three of their past four Big Ten games, and they were outscored by a combined 62 points in those three games.

But the Buckeyes have hardly been an offensive dynamo either as of late. Ohio State is coming off its two worst shooting performances of the season; a 37.5% night against Minnesota followed by a 34.3% effort at Rutgers. Ohio State scored at least 70 points in 11 of its first 13 games to start the year, but since then, the Buckeyes have failed to crack 70 in three of their last four games.

“I think we've gotta make better paint decisions. We've got to see the open man quicker and better and make cleaner reads in those situations when we've created a help situation,” Holtmann said. “I think that's the biggest thing for us right now.”

Three Important Buckeyes

Justice Sueing

For a six-game stretch from the end of 2022 through the first week of the new year, Sueing shot 57.6% from the field and hit at least half of his shots in each contest. In the past two games since then, the veteran forward’s shot 7-for-23 from the floor and 0-for-6 from 3-point range. Sueing had more than half as many turnovers (four) as he had points (seven) in Sunday’s Rutgers loss, and that was in 34 minutes of action. Ohio State must lean on its experienced leaders during this tough stretch, and that starts with Sueing.

Bruce Thornton

The freshman point guard has only scored 10 or more points in one of his past five performances, and Thornton’s four-point day against Rutgers was his second-lowest scoring total of the season. Holtmann offered an explanation for Thornton’s drop-off in production Monday when he said the Georgia native has been dealing with “a bit of a wrist injury” that he re-aggravated against the Scarlet Knights. Ohio State’s finished with eight assists or fewer in each of the past three games, and even if Thornton’s banged up, the Buckeyes need him to facilitate more offense to get out of their rut.

Isaac Likekele

Likekele didn’t come to Ohio State to score, per se, but his statistical production on offense has been nearly nonexistent since returning from a three-game absence at the end of December. The Oklahoma State transfer is averaging exactly one point per game in the last six, and he’s been held scoreless in three of them. Likekele hasn’t supplemented his low-scoring figures with an abundance of boards or assists either, as he’s averaging 2.3 of each in that stretch.

Three Important Huskers

Derrick Walker

A bruising 6-foot-8 forward, Walker may be one of the more improved players in the Big Ten in his sixth year of college basketball. The former Tennessee Volunteer averaged a respectable 9.5 points and six rebounds per game a year ago, but in just 2.2 more minutes per game this year, he’s upped those numbers to 14.5 and 7.7 as Nebraska’s leading scorer and rebounder. Walker is taking almost five more shots a game this season but still shooting better than 60% from the field. He already has three 20-point performances so far in 2022-23 and is coming off a 19-point game against Zach Edey and Purdue on Friday. Not to mention, the big man is also averaging 3.2 assists – twice as many as he did in any previous season.

Player Position Height Weight  Season Stats
C.J. WILCHER G 6-5 195 8.7 PPG, 2.6 RPG
SAM GRIESEL G 6-6 215 11.1 PPG, 5.4 RPG
JUWAN GARY F 6-6 218 9.5 PPG, 6.5 RPG
DERRICK WALKER C 6-8 232 14.1 PPG, 7.7 RPG

Sam Griesel

After four years at North Dakota State, Griesel’s game has translated well to the Big Ten in his first season as a Husker. The 6-foot-6 guard is Nebraska’s second-leading scorer with an average of 11.1 points per game on 44.1% shooting. But Griesel doesn’t just put the ball in the hole. He leads the Huskers with 4.2 assists per game and is also the team’s third-leading rebounder with 5.4 a night. Despite missing Nebraska’s last game, Griesel has been particularly consistent over his past five appearances, where he’s put up double-digit scoring numbers on every occasion.

Keisei Tominaga

The 6-foot-2 sophomore guard out of Japan plays less than 20 minutes per game for Nebraska, but he’s a productive scorer when he’s on the floor. Tominaga averages 9.8 points per game on 47.1% shooting and hits nearly 40% of his 3.9 average 3-point attempts. Per 40 minutes, Tominaga is actually Nebraska’s second-leading scorer with an average of 19.8 points per game. Tominaga saw a lull in production at the start of the new year, but dropped 16 points in Friday’s loss to Purdue.

How it Plays Out

Line: OSU -4.5, O/U: 138

The Buckeyes won’t have a better chance to get back on track in Big Ten play. After Wednesday, Ohio State takes on Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan in succession, and it must seize the opportunity at hand against the Huskers. The Buckeyes certainly have the talent to do so, and I believe we’ll see a reformed effort and a comfortable midweek win for the scarlet and gray on the road.

Prediction: Ohio State 72, Nebraska 65

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