The dejected look on coach Chris Holtmann’s face after Ohio State suffered its first loss of the season last month in Minneapolis hasn’t really gone away since.
The Gophers clearly outplayed the then-No. 3 Buckeyes in the 84-71 victory Dec. 15 at Williams Arena, but it was also a sign of things to come for Holtmann’s squad.
Ohio State went from potentially earning a No. 1 ranking to falling out of the Top 25 after six losses in its past nine games.
Entering Thursday’s rematch in Columbus, Ohio, the Gophers (10-8, 4-4 in the Big Ten) are playing a seemingly vulnerable opponent which they’ve already beaten this season.
But they won’t be overconfident.
“I don’t think we exposed anything for them,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “They’ve got talent. They’ve got depth. Their numbers are really, really good. They’re well coached. They’ll be a challenge for us.”
Certainly, the Buckeyes (12-6, 2-5) haven’t shown any recent signs of turning things around, especially coming off a 90-76 loss Saturday at Penn State. The Nittany Lions shot 54% from the field.
“I thought that was our worst defensive effort of the year,” Holtmann told reporters postgame. “You’d like to learn from it and move forward.”
The only positive in January so far for Ohio State was an 80-68 home victory vs. Nebraska last week that snapped a four-game losing streak. But that victory was overshadowed by Holtmann’s one-game suspension of guards Duane Washington Jr. and Luther Muhammad for “failure to meet program standards and expectations.”
The suspensions obviously added to Holtmann’s frustrations, but there were other issues that contributed to the losing streak.
Three-point shooting defense had been a strength for the Buckeyes. They held opponents to under 30% from beyond the arc before losing to the Gophers, but they now rank last in Big Ten games by allowing teams to shoot 38.7% from three-point range — right behind the Gophers at 38.1%.
Starters Washington (ribs) and Kyle Young (appendectomy) both missed games because of health reasons. They represented the toughness that made Holtmann’s teams difficult to play. Washington and Young haven’t produced up to their previous standards since they’ve been back.
Ohio State’s ranking is gone but Pitino sees the program as one of the nation’s elite. The Buckeyes are the only Big Ten team ranked in the Top 25 in both offensive (No. 22) and defensive efficiency (No. 23), according to advanced stats guru Ken Pomeroy. They still have junior big man Kaleb Wesson, who is averaging 17.1 points and 9.6 rebounds in league play.
“[Wesson] is a terrific low-post player,” Pitino said. “They’ve had some losses lately, but a lot of that has to do with the schedule and life on the road in the Big Ten.”
The Buckeyes are 0-4 in the Big Ten on the road, but the Gophers (0-6) haven’t won a true road game all season. Pitino challenged his team in practice this week to be tougher on the boards after giving up 20 offensive rebounds in Sunday’s 64-56 loss at Rutgers.
“That was the emphasis on almost every drill,” senior forward Alihan Demir said, “to box out and rebound the ball.”
The last time these two teams met, the Gophers dominated Ohio State on the glass 40-28. But the best player on the floor was sophomore guard Marcus Carr, who exploded for a career-high 35 points.
Carr, who was held to eight points on 2-for-8 shooting at Rutgers, knows Thursday’s foe will want revenge for the way the Gophers started the Buckeyes’ season going in the wrong direction.
“Definitely there’s a ‘get back’ factor,” Carr said. “Whenever you lose to a team, you definitely want to pay them back. Now we’re going to their place, so I definitely expect them to play with a lot of energy and a lot of will to win.”