Ohio State (24-3, 12-1 Big Ten) extended their lead to a comfortable 25-point margin before eventually settling for an 85-67 victory in "The Barn" against Minnesota Sunday afternoon.
Minnesota (9-18, 3-10 Big Ten) had problems dealing with Ohio State's size, shooting and athleticism. While center Greg Oden scored 19 points, grabbed nine rebounds and blocked a pair of Golden Gopher shots, the Buckeyes were an efficient 7-of-16 from 3-point range and scored 14 points off 15 Minnesota turnovers.
The Buckeyes also took advantage of a familiar face to a newly-designed bench.
Senior Ron Lewis, who had a reputation last year as being Ohio State's sixth man, came off the bench Sunday in favor of freshman Daequan Cook. Lewis responded with 16 points and four rebounds on 6-of-12 shooting. Cook also played well with 8 points and five rebounds.
It was tough sledding in the early-going for the Buckeyes, however. Every time the Buckeyes made a run, the Golden Gophers countered with a spurt of their own. Minnesota relied mostly on their leading scorer, Lawrence McKenzie, who had a game-high 22 points on 9-of-16 from the field. McKenzie had 16 first-half points.
But after a 43-31 halftime lead was pared down to 47-40, Ohio State responded with an 18-1 run, putting the game out of reach for good.
Freshman point guard Mike Conley was Sunday's hero for Ohio State. Conley scored just 6 points, but had 10 assists and five steals to just one turnover. For the game, Ohio State had just nine turnovers and placed four players in double-figures in one of their most efficient offensive games of the season.
Jamal Abu-Shamala was the only other Minnesota player in double-digit scoring. Abu-Shamala had 14 points.
Ohio State returns to Columbus for a Wednesday match-up with Penn State. The Buckeyes hope to have a little easier time against the Nittany Lions the second time around within a week, as last Wednesday Ohio State blew a 23-point second-half lead and held on for dear-life as a missed 3-pointer at the buzzer preserved their 64-62 win.
The Buckeyes will likely take a No.1 or No. 2-ranking into the game Wednesday. A win would set up a huge Sunday showdown against Wisconsin, who will likely also either be No. 1 or No. 2. It would be the first time since Feb. 2, 1998 that No. 1 has faced No. 2 in the regular season of college basketball since Duke and North Carolina tangled of that season. It would also be the first time ever two Big Ten teams ranked in the top two spots have clashed.
What Minnesota Did Right and Ohio State Did Wrong
* Credit the Golden Gophers for going with their strengths. Minnesota was playing with the mindset of getting the ball into the hands of their few play-makers - McKenzie and Abu-Shamala. McKenzie fought through double-screens, staggered screens and around several picks to take any opening he could find. His play largely kept Minnesota alive early in the game.
* Ohio State becomes very vulernable to dribble penetration when Oden leaves the floor. In the first half, the Gophers attacked the rim against Matt Terwilliger and Harris. The lacking presence of the 7-footer shows the rarely seen exploits of Ohio State's weakside defense and occasional mental lapses.
* Minnesota, respecting Ohio State's shooting ability, continued in the common trend of electing not to double-team Oden when he receives the ball on the baseline. Bryce Webster did a good job during the early portion of the game not allowing Oden to gain position inside, but either by intimidation, fatigue or simply a more assertive effort by Oden, he started relenting and allowing Oden to back him down too far.
* Kudos to Ron Lewis for his inspired offensive showing in light of his coming off the bench (more on that shortly), but if there was one knock on his game Sunday afternoon, it was defensively. Lewis' experiment guarding McKenzie in the first half was nothing short of being termed, "a failure." Lewis especially struggled fighting through screens and was late in returning off hedges. That said, his offensive performance was one of the better in recent memory.
What Ohio State Did Right and Minnesota Did Wrong
* Was it a benching, motivation tool or reward to Cook, who reportedly had a great week of practice? Whatever the rationale, Thad Matta's decision to start Cook in place of Lewis worked wonders against Minnesota. The move, which arguably may have been done sooner if not for the risk of losing Lewis and his mindset, as well as wanting Cook to work hard on both ends to earn his spot, does a multitude of things for Ohio State. First and foremost, it will slightly change the rotation patterns, especially early in the game, keeping Lewis on the floor when Harris and Butler likely sit. Secondly, Matta can challenge Lewis with the importance of being the "sixth starter," a role that fit him last season. Another thing it does is likely motivates the freshman, who had disappeared at times in recent weeks. Cook will now be less likely to fall out of sight and out of mind.
* It was Ohio State's defensive activity in the first and second half that won the game for them going away. Harris, Conley, Hunter and Butler were all shuffling their feet and playing the passing lanes, causing turnovers by Minnesota. More importantly, Ohio State was making them pay by converting those turnovers into points in transition.
* In an ever-developing process, Hunter again played the best game of his career in my humble opinion. He continues to be a force on the offensive boards, but his hard work on defense and comfort level offensively makes him a candidate for a March sleeper. Conley also stepped up big for Ohio State. His defense and passing ability, especially in the open floor, was a dagger through the heart of Minnesota.
* The biggest plus for Ohio State Sunday was what they didn't do - rely on their outside shot. With Ohio State's renewed effort to establish Oden in the post, the Buckeyes were scoring inside and on the break. Quietly but extremely efficiently, Ohio State made 44 percent of their 3-point attempts. More impressively, with one minor exception early to start the second half, Ohio State never gave the impression they were settling for outside shots. The Buckeyes attempted just 16 of 65 shots Sunday from beyond the arc.
* In Ohio State's quest to feed Oden the ball, the Buckeyes were trying some new things. In the first half, Ohio State was flashing Oden to the free throw line, and as they reversed the ball away to the opposite wing, someone would make a horizontal screen down the baseline to the block, where Oden would shuffle around and set himself up comfortably in prime position to receive an entry pass. Ohio State also used a couple of variations of this later in the game to get a weakside screen and free up a shooter after a ball reversal. This is the kind of creativity that will go a long ways to Ohio State's tournament success, especially if they execute offensively the way they did Sunday.
* Ball control. Last but not least, Ohio State returned to their conservative ways and turned the ball over fewer than 10 times for the fourth time in their last five games. Protecting the ball and shooting at a high percentage as they have done is a good combination hitting March.
No one would confuse an 18-point victory against a struggling Minnesota club as the surest sign of life from an inconsistent Ohio State basketball team. That said, you want to hit your stride heading into March, and it's good for the Buckeyes that they played one of their best games of the season after such a sloppy finish against Penn State.
Ohio State's task is simple: win three games and win an outright Big Ten title. More importantly, they get set up for an ever-so-important No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. People sometimes downplay the importance of being a No. 1, as some do not care for the pressure that's attached. But this season especially, it is a good idea to be one of the top three teams ranked on the selection committee's "s-curve," which is a subjective ranking of the teams in the field, 1-65. Being one of these top three teams will likely mean avoiding the best No. 2-seed, which will likely be one of the five elite teams people agree have the best shot of winning a National Championship.
Beating out Wisconsin and North Carolina in the s-curve will mean several things. It means avoiding UNC, Wisconsin, UCLA and Florida until at least the Final Four. It also means a likely trip to East Rutherford for the regionals instead of St. Louis or even San Antonio. Lastly, it could mean facing a possible 12-seed cinderella story in the Sweet Sixteen instead of a three seed or even increases the chances of playing a lower seed in the Elite Eight instead one of the aforementioned "elite" teams.
None of that maters yet, however.
Ohio State still has three regular season games to play and then the Big Ten Tournament. It's time for them to build off their victory against Minnesota and start playing the basketball they are capable of playing - for all 40 minutes of a game.