Ohio State and West Virginia are separated by just 200 miles and a state line, but Sunday will be only their second meeting in the past decade.
And for just the second time in the teams’ 15 all-time matchups, both enter ranked.
No. 2 Ohio State (11-1) is set to take on No. 22 West Virginia (10-1) and head coach Bob Huggins in Cleveland –– the Buckeyes’ second straight ranked-test over the holiday break from class.
“It’s unique to be able to play as quality of competition as we’ve played before and after Christmas here, with West Virginia,” Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann said. “Certainly the most challenging game I’ve ever competed in after Christmas.”
Size has been key for the Mountaineers’ success in 2019. Their starting lineup consists of four players 6-foot-7 or taller, and West Virginia ranks No. 5 in offensive rebounds at 14.9 per game.
Ohio State junior forward Kaleb Wesson grabs over 27 percent of opponents’ missed shots, a number that puts him top 30 in the country. Ohio State’s biggest starter will be put to the test keeping the larger West Virginia team off the offensive glass.
“He’s as important in this game as any game, because of his size and rebounding, and his ability to hold his ground against bodies that are going to lean and push on him,” Holtmann said. “He’s really important in this particular game.”
West Virginia is dominant on the inside behind a pair of big men, freshman forward Oscar Tshiebwe and sophomore forward Derek Culver. Both average over nine rebounds per contest, and Culver leads the team in rebounding and is second in both scoring and assists.
Both Tshiebwe and Mountaineers senior guard Jermaine Haley shoot over 60 percent from the field, but the other side of the floor is where West Virginia does the most damage.
“The numbers would suggest they’re the best defensive team we’ve played, and by far the best rebounding team we’ve played, and overall, certainly one of the best teams we’ve played all year,” Holtmann said.
In its 10 wins this season, West Virginia has given up more than 70 points in just two games. It allows just 36.2 percent shooting from the field, including just 24.6 percent from 3.
The Buckeyes are shooting over 40 percent from distance and have hit 26 combined 3s in its three previous wins over ranked teams. The team has four players who shoot 40 percent or higher from downtown on at least three attempts per game, but their shooting will be tested against the pressure of West Virginia.
“You can’t have live-ball turnovers, them getting out in transition, getting easy baskets, and things like that,” redshirt junior guard C.J. Walker said. “You have to play at your own pace. Get them in the halfcourt and make them play defense. And you have to be able to make open shots, just because it’s going to be a fast-paced game.”
West Virginia has just one power conference win this season in its rivalry matchup with Pittsburgh. Its only loss of the year came at St. John’s, where it held the Red Storm to 23-for-70 from the field, but was outshot by 17 from the free throw line.
Ohio State is coming off a 71-65 win over No. 6 Kentucky in Las Vegas, where Kentucky’s long, athletic defense didn’t do much against the Buckeyes, who shot over 60 percent from 2-point range.
Freshman guard D.J. Carton was crucial in Ohio State’s win over Kentucky, leading the Buckeyes with 15 points and playing the last 16 minutes of game time. His ball-handling and decision-making will be important against a West Virginia team known for its full-court pressure.
“I think [Carton] was very conscious, in particular in the Kentucky game, of taking care of the ball, and that’s got to really continue,” Holtmann said. “Particularly in this West Virginia game, where what they do is turn you over.”
The Buckeyes’ three wins over top 10 teams so far are the most in its first 12 games in school history, and adding another ranked win would bolster its already impressive nonconference record.
Ohio State and West Virginia tip off at noon Sunday.