Now that Ohio State men’s basketball has shot down the Big Ten’s best, Thursday sets the Buckeyes’ sights on one of the conference’s worst.
No. 23 Ohio State (18-9, 8-8 Big Ten) will follow a victory against the team at the top of the conference’s standings, then-No. 7 Maryland, with a game against the squad slotted No. 13 in the Big Ten, Nebraska (7-20, 2-15).
Nothing is taken for granted on the road in the Big Ten, Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann said, but Nebraska could serve as the perfect landing spot for the Buckeyes to earn their seventh victory in nine games.
The Cornhuskers beat Iowa before embarking on their current 12-game losing streak. The Hawkeyes defeated the Buckeyes 85-76 Feb. 20.
“[Our players] saw that they had Maryland, at Maryland, a chance to tie or win at the buzzer, and they’ve seen all the close scores, a number of close scores,” Holtmann said. “We know it’s gonna be a challenge, and it’s a fair point that comes down to the maturity of your group.”
Nebraska’s second-to-last-place Big Ten standing is reflected on its stat sheet.
The Cornhuskers rank worst in the conference for several categories, including scoring defense, field goal percentage, defensive field goal percentage, scoring margin and rebounding margin.
Its rebounding is a particular deficit as a team, with just one player — freshman forward Yvan Ouedraogo — averaging at least five per game. Ouedraogo hauls in 6.1.
For comparison, Ohio State’s relied on two players to pull in at least five boards per contest, with junior forward Kaleb Wesson at 9.3 and junior forward Kyle Young at 5.8.
In total, Nebraska’s opponents pull in 10.1 more rebounds per game than the Cornhuskers. No other Big Ten team is outrebounded by more than 4.3.
The Buckeyes could be without Young Thursday due to a high ankle sprain, removing the team’s No. 2 rebounder and top hustle player from its lineup. Holtmann said Young will be a game-time decision Thursday, but if he does play, he’ll be limited.
There’s still no timetable for freshman guard D.J. Carton’s return while he deals with mental health issues.
With the lack of depth, Ohio State assistant coach Jake Diebler has had to join the scout team when Ohio State wants to go five-on-five in practice.
“We’re down some bodies right now,” Holtmann said. “Two guys that started the last time we played Nebraska are out. It’ll be a variety of guys. It’s exciting in some ways because they’re gonna have the opportunity to step up here on the road.”
Senior forward Andre Wesson and freshman forward E.J. Liddell will likely see an uptick in minutes while Young recovers. Andre Wesson played all 40 minutes against the Terrapins Sunday.
Sophomore guard Duane Washington said Liddell will need to “be prepared.”
“In practice, he goes really hard, and he pays attention and he locks into stuff that’s important,” Washington said. “He works on his game every day. For him just to get better little by little each day has been huge for him, huge for us.”
While the Cornhuskers’ defensive numbers are all at or near the bottom of the Big Ten, its offensive metrics fare slightly better.
Nebraska is No. 9 in the conference for scoring offense and 3-point shooting, slotting in at No. 6 for assists.
The Cornhuskers excel at creating transition opportunities, with a conference-best turnover margin of plus-2.8.
Sophomore guard Cam Mack leads the charge in this area as No. 3 in the Big Ten with 6.5 assists per game and a steady 2.5 assist-to-turnover ratio. His 33 steals are tied for the team lead.
Mack missed Nebraska’s previous game against Illinois due to illness. He’s a game-time decision Thursday.
“This group really tests you — in terms of Nebraska — your ability to defend. They really test you with the way they can spread you out,” Holtmann said.
It’s not the first time the Buckeyes and Cornhuskers have met this season.
Ohio State’s victory against Nebraska in the two sides’ previous meeting Jan. 14 snapped a four-game losing streak. Six Buckeyes scored double digits in an 80-68 win.
Nebraska junior guard Thorir Thorbjarnarson, who shoots 42 percent from 3 on the season, canned five triples for 15 points to lead the Cornhuskers in the loss.
He’ll have a chance to find a groove again against the Buckeyes, who allow the second-highest 3-point shooting percentage in the Big Ten.
Washington said that regardless of how its opponent looks on paper, Ohio State is locked in.
“We’re taking it game by game, and for me just keep attacking and keep being strong offensively, keep playing hard on defense,” Washington said. “Staying confident and having the trust in my teammates and coach, as well as them having trust in me.”
Ohio State and Nebraska tip off at 9 p.m. Thursday in Lincoln, Nebraska.