December has arrived, and with it the first Big Ten action of Ohio State's men’s basketball season.
The Buckeyes are riding a five-game winning streak with each victory coming by double digits, most recently taking the Emerald Coast Classic title before rolling through Central Michigan by 27 points.
Their opponent to open league play is Minnesota, the only squad with a worse conference record than Ohio State last year at 2-17. One of those two wins came in Value City Arena against the Buckeyes, however.
The Golden Gophers returned many of their key contributors from last season and also got a couple of players back from season-ending injuries last year in forwards Parker Fox and Isaiah Ihnen. They’re off to a 5-2 start in 2023-24 – already more than halfway to their nine-win total from a year ago – with a two-point loss against Missouri and an 18-point loss to San Francisco as the blemishes.
“We’ve got a Minnesota team here that’s really talented,” Holtmann said Wednesday. “They’re young like we are but they’re clearly as talented as any team that we’ve played, and big. They’re young but they’re really good.”
Need to Know
Reunion, but as rivals
Ohio State forward Jamison Battle will play his first game against his old team since transferring from Minneapolis to Columbus this offseason. Minnesota’s leading scorer in 2021-22 and second-leading scorer in 2022-23, Battle is locked in on preparing for this game as if it were any other Big Ten contest.
“You obviously have thoughts about that, but it’s just the first Big Ten game of the season, that’s how we’re looking at it,” Battle said. “As a team, we’ve got some things we need to improve on from the Central Michigan game and from games prior. I think we’re looking forward to opening the Big Ten season at home and playing a pretty solid Minnesota team.”
Metrics much improved so far
It’s only a handful of games against mostly mid-majors, but Minnesota’s efficiency statistics have improved greatly from a year ago. Last year the squad ranked 345th in points per 100 possessions and 314th in points allowed per 100, but so far this season the Gophers are up to 78th and 72nd in the same two metrics.
Three Important Buckeyes
Battle will have his say on Sunday, but it’s Okpara who will be counted on to stop star Minnesota forward Dawson Garcia down low. Okpara’s also been developing as an offensive weapon and rebounder, recording at least seven boards for the fourth game in a row and posting a career-high 14 points against Central Michigan.
“He’s growing in that and got to continue to grow in it,” Holtmann said. “He had a great tip out tonight that was critical. We’ve really tried to get better at that. He’s really shown more commitment on that end, and that’s been pleasing to see on both ends.”
Thornton’s going to be a recurring character in this section for as long as he continues putting up performances like his 29-point night against Alabama or 25-point outing (17 in the first 15 minutes) vs. Central Michigan. Ohio State will once again hope to rely on his star power in securing its first Big Ten win.
This is a deep Minnesota squad featuring nine players who see the floor for double-digit minutes per game, eight of them averaging at least six points per game. Five of the top nine are forwards, which means the Buckeyes’ depth down low needs to be on point. That starts with Key, the top big off the bench for the Buckeyes.
Three Notable Gophers
|7.4 PPG, 5.4 APG
|6.1 PPG, 5.6 RPG
|9.0 PPG, 2.3 RPG
|6.7 PPG, 4.0 RPG
|18.3 PPG, 7.9 RPG
Garcia is Minnesota’s top scorer by a sizeable 7.3 points per game, averaging 18.3 per contest. He matched his career-high in last year’s win at Ohio State with 28 points. He’ll start at the 5 in Value City Arena but can stretch the floor as a career 35% shooter from distance. He also paces the team in rebounds with 7.9 per game.
Stopping Minnesota's attack starts with stopping Garcia, who began his college career at Marquette and later transferred to North Carolina before ending up at Minnesota.
This 5-11 dynamo serves to direct Minnesota’s offense from the point guard position. Hawkins leads the Gophers with 5.4 assists per game, the third-highest rate of dimes in the Big Ten. He adds 7.4 points per game to that passing production.
As noted above, Minnesota rolls eight to nine players in and gets pretty widespread point production. Christie is one of the leading examples of this phenomenon. The Gophers’ seventh man in terms of minutes is second on the team in points per game at 11. He’s also third in assists with 2.7 per game and has thus far shot a gaudy 53.8% from 3.
“I think the biggest thing (that held us back) in my last few years at Minnesota was the depth piece. I think they’re really deep now,” Battle said. “They can go eight, nine deep and they have a lot of guys who can go out there and shoot the ball and score the ball. I think they’re playing a lot faster this year.”
How It Plays Out
Line: Ohio State -13.5, O/U 143.5
Minnesota is a better team than a year ago, but Ohio State is a much better team in its own right. A hungry bunch of Gophers make it tight in sections but the Buckeyes get enough scoring and play strong-enough defense to secure a win.
Prediction: Ohio State 74, Minnesota 65