Basketball Preview: Ohio State Looks to Get Back on Winning Track Against Mid-Major Merrimack

By Andy Anders on November 15, 2023 at 8:35 am
Felix Okpara, Jamison Battle, Evan Mahaffey and Roddy Gayle Jr.
Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch/USA TODAY Network

Following its first loss of the 2023-24 season to No. 15 Texas A&M on Friday, Wednesday should offer Ohio State basketball a chance to get back on a winning track.

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Merrimack comes to Value City Arena representing the Northeast Conference. The Warriors closed last season strong, winning 11 consecutive games after starting 7-16 to finish the year as Northeast Conference regular season and tournament champions, though they were ineligible for NCAA Tournament play in their fourth season since moving up from D-II.

Still, Merrimack shouldn’t be the caliber of squad that challenges a Big Ten foe, especially after losing 67-55 to Vermont to open its season. The Buckeyes will hope to tune up a few shortcomings that hurt them in previous games and win comfortably at home.

Need to know

In the zone

Merrimack’s 2-3 zone has been one noted by Holtmann since before the season started, and the coach again referred to it as a “staple” of the Warriors’ program on Tuesday. Last year the Warriors finished 16th in all of college basketball in points allowed per game, albeit against much weaker competition than the Buckeyes will see this year. 

Ohio State is still looking to develop weapons that are great counters to a zone, which Holtmann said the team has been lacking since the departure of E.J. Liddell following the 2020-21 season.

“It’s almost like they’re forcing you to play left-handed,” Holtmann said of Merrimack's defense. “It’s just unique in that you see zones on occasion – they’re well-coached on their zone principles in a lot of ways. They do a great job coaching them, making sure they’re active. They play it really hard and they’re disruptive. They’re really disruptive.”

Glass uncrashed

Ohio State had issues with defensive rebounding in its first two games, allowing 11 rebounds and 13 second-chance points to Oakland and another 16 offensive rebounds with 19 second-chance points to Texas A&M. Merrimack was in the bottom six percent of college basketball last year for offensive rebounding, however, finishing 345th nationally with 229 offensive boards on the season. If the Buckeyes can’t keep the Warriors off the offensive glass, it’s time to get concerned.

Three Important Buckeyes

Jamison Battle

While a strong 2-3 zone like Merrimack’s aims to prevent good looks from 3, sharp shooting and strong post play are often ways to break a zone defense. Ohio State is looking for both from Battle, its starting power forward.

“I think that Jamison will continue to get more and more comfortable offensively,” Holtmann said. “He’s got to rebound for us at a continued better level.”

Felix Okpara

Averaging just two rebounds across 17 minutes in Ohio State’s first two games, the team’s starting center has to hit the boards “far better” than he has, per Holtmann. The Buckeyes head coach is confident in Okpara’s ability to get that done, and an undersized Merrimack team could offer an opportunity for the Nigerian to post some better numbers on the glass.

“I’ve got to get more rebounds, crash the glass offensively and defensively,” Okpara said. “For me (to get better), it’s just getting more rebounds and blocked shots.”

Devin Royal

If Ohio State builds the lead that it wants against Merrimack, it should allow some of its talented freshmen to see the floor for extended minutes. While Scotty Middleton is already playing a significant role, Royal has been used more sparingly thus far, so Wednesday could afford him an opportunity to further his development.

Three Notable Warriors

Jordan Derkack

Projected Starting Lineup
No. Player Position Height Weight 2023-24 Stats
0 Adam Clark G 5-10 155 13.3 PPG, 4.0 APG
5 Devon Savage G 6-4 190 8.0 PPG, 6.0 RPG
4 Jordan Derkack G 6-5 205 16.3 PPG, 7.3 RPG
2 Samba Diallo F 6-7 195 9.7 PPG, 5.7 RPG
11 Bryan Etumnu F 6-7 215 6.7 PPG, 2.3 RPG

Derkack has been the Warriors’ top scorer and rebounder through two games, averaging 16.3 points and 7.3 boards. The sophomore guard has filled the role vacated by Ziggy Reid as Merrimack’s top-scoring member of the backcourt after Reid transferred to Youngstown State following the 2022-23 season.

Adam “Budd” Clark

What the freshman Clark lacks in size at 5-10 he makes up for in playmaking as the only Warrior averaging more than 1.7 assists per game, with four dimes per contest. He’s also the squad’s second-leading scorer at 13.3 points per game.

Samba Diallo

The 6-7 forward is an important piece for Merrimack in the frontcourt, playing the second-most minutes of any Warrior to date and ranking third on the team in scoring with 9.7 points per game.

How It Plays Out

Line: Ohio State -20.5, O/U 133.5

Ohio State gets back on track against a mid-major that doesn’t have the horses to run with it. There are some offensive lulls against Merrimack’s zone but not enough to pose a true threat.

Prediction: Ohio State 75, Merrimack 57

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