Tuesday will begin a closing stretch of games head coach Chris Holtmann views as one of the toughest of the season for Ohio State.
The Buckeyes will face three Big Ten teams currently ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 in the final four games of the regular season: No. 22 Iowa, No. 14 Purdue and No. 19 Wisconsin.
With an Ohio State team on the bubble for a spot in the NCAA Tournament, and with this stretch of games heading into the Big Ten tournament, Holtmann said his team is in a position not many teams have the opportunity to be in.
“We all know what was said about this group earlier in the year, before the season got started, and we’ve got an opportunity here to see how we can finish,” Holtmann said. “We get what we earn.”
Ohio State (17-10, 7-9 Big Ten)
G — C.J. Jackson — Senior, 12.5 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 3.4 apg
G — Luther Muhammad — Freshman, 8.9 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 2.0 apg
F — Justin Ahrens — Freshman, 2.1 ppg, 1.3 rpg, 0.2 apg
F — Andre Wesson — Junior, 8.9 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 1.7 apg
F — Kaleb Wesson — Sophomore, 14.4 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 1.7 apg
No. 22 Iowa (21-6, 10-6 Big Ten)
G — Jordan Bohannon — Junior, 11.7 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 3.5 apg
G — Joe Wieskamp — Freshman, 11.1 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 1.0 apg
G — Isaiah Moss — Redshirt junior, 9.9 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 1.9 apg
F — Tyler Cook — Junior, 16.0 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 2.5 apg
F — Luka Garza — Sophomore, 13.3 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 0.9 apg
As the No. 6 team in the Big Ten, the Hawkeyes have won five of their past six games, taking a 76-70 overtime win against Indiana Friday.
Iowa will bring the No. 1 scoring offense in the conference to Columbus Tuesday, averaging 80.4 points per game and shooting 46.6 percent from the field, which is second-best behind Michigan State.
Ohio State already has an idea of what the Iowa offense looks like, having lost to the Hawkeyes 72-62 Jan. 12. Despite the Buckeyes leading 26-24 at halftime, Iowa exploded to make 15-of-27 from the field in the second half.
“We thought that it was a win,” sophomore forward Kaleb Wesson said. “I feel like going into the second half, we didn’t have the same intensity and came out with the same toughness that we had the first time in the first half.”
Much of the Hawkeyes’ success was due to the play of its two starting forwards: junior Tyler Cook and sophomore Luka Garza. Against Ohio State, they combined for 31 points, converting on 11-of-17 attempts from the field with 12 rebounds.
Wesson said that both Iowa forwards do a good job of sealing, getting them multiple touches in the paint.
Holtmann said the reason why both forwards have put up the numbers they have is because of the shooting ability of the rest of the starting lineup. The Hawkeyes are No. 3 in the Big Ten in 3-point field goal percentage.
In his first year with the Buckeyes, Holtmann knew of Cook, the player who leads Iowa this season with 16 points per game. But Garza was the one who made the lasting impact.
“I was so impressed with Garza last year when we played them,” Holtmann said. “And he has proven to be as good of a player as he is.”
Garza made 6-of-7 shot attempts against the Buckeyes Jan. 12, leading the team with 16 points.
On the outside, Holtmann said senior guard C.J. Jackson will return to the starting lineup after being sidelined with a shoulder injury Saturday against Maryland.
After earning his first career start against the Terrapins Saturday, freshman forward Justin Ahrens will continue to have opportunities in an increased role, Holtmann said. He added that the starting spot is still “fluid,” though.
In five games against ranked opponents this season, Ohio State is winless. Its past two losses to ranked teams have been by double digits.
However, Holtmann said he senses a level of urgency heading into Tuesday’s matchup with the Hawkeyes, saying, “You’ve got to be living in a cave if you don’t have that feeling.”
But the number attached to Iowa does not change the mentality of Wesson ahead of Tuesday’s game.
“Every game from now [on] is the biggest game of the season,” Wesson said. “We have to go into practice and think our biggest game is Tuesday.”
Ohio State will take on No. 22 Iowa at the Schottenstein Center at 7 p.m. Tuesday.