Starting Five: Ohio State-Nebraska Men’s Basketball Preview
By Ben Axelrod
COLUMBUS, Ohio — After playing in what was perhaps its most impressive win of the Big Ten season—an 80-63 win over then-No. 7 Indiana—sixth-ranked Ohio State looked like the team that most expected them to be when they began conference play nearly a month ago.
Unfortunately for fans of momentum, the Buckeyes—who have admittedly played with bi-polar efforts throughout the past month—a bye week sat in between their dismantling of the Hoosiers and their next opponent. Buckeye fans as well as Ohio State coach Thad Matta will be anxious to see what kind of effort the Buckeyes (16-3, 4-2 Big Ten) put on the court when they return to Nebraska for the first time since 1987.
They take on the Cornhuskers (10-8, 2-5) at 8 p.m. Saturday in a game that will air on the Big Ten Network.
Keeping The Momentum
One way to tell if the Buckeyes have maintained what momentum they built against the Hoosiers on Sunday will be their effort on defense against Nebraska. Ohio State gave up just 14 first-half points against Indiana and the Buckeyes are well aware that they have allowed 74 points or more in their three losses this season.
“We need everybody, all five guys connected out there, on the defensive end,” OSU senior guard WIlliam Buford said.
“When we play great defense it leads to great offense. We always need to be tuned in out there on the defensive end.”
Matta agreed that a more consistent defensive effort is needed from his team, even if it comes at the cost of their effort on the offensive end of the floor.
“I would rather walk the ball up the floor and stand and rest, but never on the defensive end,” Matta said.
Scouting the Huskers
Presenting a strong defensive front will be even more important Saturday night when the Buckeyes face a Nebraska team that is much improved from its 71-40 loss in Columbus on Jan. 3. Since suffering that beat-down from the Buckeyes, the Huskers have returned juniors Jorge Brian Diaz and Dylan Talley from injury.
Diaz, a 6-11 center, is averaging 9.8 points and 4.4 rebounds per game while Talley, a 6-5 guard, is adding 9.2 points a game. The help the Huskers have received from the two juniors was particularly evident when Nebraska knocked off No. 11 Indiana, 70-69, on Wednesday.
“It gives them a boost to know that they have two guys out there, guys that have been starters, they’ve been through the battles and they understand what it’s about,” Matta said.
“Our guys know, they’re watching college basketball, they know that adding two guys to the team makes them a better basketball team.”
Matta said that despite beating Nebraska by such a large margin in their first match-up, he can still use film from that game as a teaching tool for this go-round with the Huskers.
“You show from the victory that we had, a lot of things that we didn’t do very well,” Matta said.
“They know the task at hand and what they have to do. This is the next game on the schedule, we know we have to be a better basketball team than we were last Sunday.”
Returning to the Road
Battling the Huskers is one thing. Doing it on the road is another.
Much like giving up 74-plus points has been a common thread in Buckeye losses, so has playing on the road, as all three OSU losses have come away from Value City Arena. Buford said that it’s no secret that the Buckeyes need to improve their play away from home.
“We have something to prove on the road,” Buford said.
“We haven’t been playing good on the road at all this season so we just want to go in with a certain mindset, a certain toughness, and try to take home the victory.”
Matta agreed with Buford that OSU’s road efforts have left much to be desired this season.
“We have to play better on the road. We have to withstand teams runs on us,” he said.
“You know, the momentum swings, we have to play through those and in essence concentrate, buckle down, and do the things we have to do. It’s always a challenge, there’s no question about that.”
One player in particular who might be eager for the Buckeyes to take the court in Lincoln is Buford. Since his 6-for-11 performance against the Huskers in Columbus, the senior guard has been battling with a slump of sorts, shooting 34 percent from the field and turning the ball over 10 times in the past three games.
Matta said that he would like to see Buford get back to playing the basketball he’s capable of playing.
“I don’t think he’s trying to do too much, because he’s passing up opportunities offensively at times,” Matta said.
“I want William to play with the confidence, with the abilities that he has. I think that when he’s doing those things, that’s when he’s playing his best basketball.”
Buford said that his offensive woes aren’t anything to over-think.
“I’ve been playing basketball for so long that I know what I need to do and I know how to get back to my regular self,” Buford.
“I’m getting great looks, I’m just not knocking my shot down. That’s it.”
Big Ten Outlook
Despite Buford’s recent struggles and OSU’s early conference losses to Indiana and Illinois, the Buckeyes’ remain in the Big Ten title picture, thanks in large part to a conference season that has seen seven ranked teams fall to unranked opponents.
The Buckeyes enter Saturday in a four-way tie for second place in the league, only trailing Michigan, who’s 5-2 in the league. With the Wolverines playing an out-of-conference game at Arkansas on Saturday, an Ohio State win would put the Buckeyes in a tie for first place in the conference.
The excitement that the Big Ten has brought to college basketball isn’t lost on Buford, who already has two conference championships to his credit in his career.
“I’ve noticed a lot of them. It just shows that the Big Ten is a real tough conference this year and anyone can lose on any given night,” Buford said.
Matta, who will coach in his 400th game on Saturday, said that what is happening in the Big Ten this year is unlike anything he’s seen during his time in college basketball and it would make a win over Nebraska—who’s tied with Penn State for last place in the Big Ten—all the more meaningful.
“It seems every now and then somebody will sneak up on somebody but not at the level that it’s happened,” Matta said.
“Which obviously speaks to the balance, parity, what have you, in terms of how good the league is. Any time in conference play, you win on the road, that’s a great feeling.”