LINCOLN, Neb. The Ohio State men’s basketball team has had to deal with injuries for most the season, but not quite like it did Thursday at Pinnacle Bank Arena against host Nebraska.
When the 23rd-ranked Buckeyes left Columbus for what would become a 75-54 win over the Cornhuskers, they were already without the services of freshman point guard D.J. Carton, who missed his eighth straight game while dealing with mental health issues. Then, when they boarded the team flight, they had to leave freshman forward Alonzo Gaffney behind because of an illness that had limited him all week in practice.
The final blow, delivered in Sunday’s win over No. 7 Maryland and confirmed on Thursday afternoon, was the loss of junior forward Kyle Young to an ankle injury.
The absences left coach Chris Holtmann facing multiple lineup decisions with only eight scholarship players available.
Go small, and play with all three available scholarship guards? Stick to more traditional lineups with two guards, two forwards and a center? Get weird and pull something new out of the toolbox?
From a personnel standpoint, Holtmann moved Duane Washington Jr. back into the starting lineup alongside fellow guards CJ Walker and Luther Muhammad. From a tactical standpoint, he held his breath that the whistles wouldn’t force him to reach too deep down his bench especially when forward Kaleb Wesson picked up a foul 2:57 into the game.
The injury situation "really put a premium on us not fouling," Holtmann said. "Kaleb’s first one scared me."
Ultimately, Holtmann said he was confident in sophomore wing Justin Ahrens and freshman forward E.J. Liddell to handle greater playing time, helping alleviate some of his worries.
Ahrens had three rebounds in nine minutes and forced a turnover by diving for a ball near midcourt. Liddell set a career high with five blocks and added eight points and five rebounds in 20 minutes.
Liddell in particular helped handle some of Young’s responsibilities, something that a healthy Gaffney would have also been in line to do.
"It’s always hard losing a guy like Kyle, a glue guy who does all the little things that help a team win," Wesson said. "Guys coming off the bench being able to step up, next-man-up mentality — not a lot of teams have that. That’s special, to be on a team like that."
What it means Sunday for a home game against No. 19 Michigan is unknown. The Wolverines boast more size than the Cornhuskers, putting more of a premium on the Buckeyes having more size on the court. Young made the trip to Nebraska and was on the bench for the game, but he watched with his right ankle in a walking boot and used crutches to get around.
Thursday’s starters, who had played together for a combined 34:27 this season and outscored opponents 69-56, played for 16:10 against the Cornhuskers. They scored 33 points and allowed 22, but afterward Holtmann said depth will be a greater concern against Michigan.
"I think we did what we had to do," Washington said. "We made the best of our situation. We rotated a smaller lineup, and Nebraska has a small lineup as well, so it kind of fit. We just played hard and really locked in on defense."