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Notebook: E.J. Liddell takes blame for Ohio State loss, struggles guarding Liam Robbins

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
Minnesota's Liam Robbins (0) shoots over Ohio State's Justice Sueing (14) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

MINNEAPOLIS – There is plenty of blame to go around in a game where you lose by double digits.

Sunday afternoon at Williams Arena, Ohio State sophomore forward E.J. Liddell assumed as much of it as he could. No. 25 Ohio State allowed No. 21 Minnesota to score on the first seven possessions of the game, junior center Liam Robbins would finish with 27 points and 14 rebounds, tying a season-high mark for scoring and setting a new career mark for rebounding and the Buckeyes would trail by double figures for the final 10:25 of the game in what would be a 77-60 loss.

Much of what the Golden Gophers were able to do was courtesy of the 7-foot Robbins, who would attempt 17 free throws, block five shots, dish out four assists and otherwise make life miserable for the Buckeyes. And the responsibility for stopping Robbins fell to the 6-7 Liddell, who would finish with 10 points on 3-of-11 shooting, seven rebounds and a big serving of self-assigned blame for the defeat.

“We were supposed to come out and use our mobility and quickness against him and be very physical with him and wear him down throughout the game and we just didn’t do that,” Liddell said. “We weren’t physical enough. I put that on myself. I feel like I let down my team.”

It wasn’t solely Liddell’s responsibility to shut down Robbins, but the production from Minnesota’s big man does highlight an uncorrectable fact about this Ohio State roster: although the Buckeyes have good positional length, they lack true size at the center position.

Minnesota's Isaiah Ihnen (35) blocks a shot-attempt by Ohio State's E.J. Liddell (32) in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Minneapolis.

Kyle Young, who was a power forward for the first three years of his Ohio State career while playing alongside Kaleb Wesson, is this team’s center. He stands 6-8. Together, the duo put up 38 points (21 for Liddell, 17 for Young) in a touch, comeback win against a Rutgers team that brings plenty of physicality to the paint.

On this night, they had few answers.

“We’ve certainly played well against guys that have had similar size,” coach Chris Holtmann said. “It wasn’t just their big size. Their guards are very physical and we didn’t handle it well. We didn’t handle the stuff that you need to handle in a game that’s this physical. It was not, by any stretch, just EJ. It was across the board, and that’s my fault. We have to get them ready for that level of physicality.”

Robbins opened the game with a three-pointer from the top of the circle. He was 6 for 9 from two-point range and had a fouls-drawn rate of 15.5. Some of that came from the Buckeyes fouling him once he already had the ball in positions where he could be effective.

That could be traced to a need for better on-ball pressure.

“Just put pressure on the ball,” senior guard CJ Walker told The Dispatch. “Make it harder on the wings. Make them make a tougher pass to give E.J. time to either front or get to a position where it’s easier to defend or get him off the block to the middle of the floor. Minnesota plays really comfortable at home, so that was our thing, to try and make them uncomfortable and catch it in spots where they don’t usually catch it.”

“We knew we were a little undersized guarding him,” junior guard Duane Washington Jr. said. “He played a hell of a game. He made some really, really tough shots. Affected the game in a variety of ways. We weren’t physical enough. I don’t know if we knew he was going to be that physical or not, but he played some really good basketball tonight and made some tough shots.”

Obviously, it was an issue. Liddell said the plan was to try and wear Robbins down by using Ohio State’s athleticism in the paint to make life tough on him.

“He’s an aggressive big,” he said. “He shoots threes and gets to his spots but our preparation was to take him out of those spots. We didn’t do that, I didn’t do that specifically and he got to his spots and did a great job today.

Stopping Carr

The flipside to that is that the Buckeyes were able to limit Marcus Carr from doing what he did to them last year. In the first meeting between the teams, Carr poured in a career-high 35 points. In the rematch in Columbus, he had 21 including the game-winning three.

Walker drew the primary assignment on Carr, who entered the night averaging 22.7 points per game, and was key in holding him to 15 points on 12 shots. Ten of his points came after halftime. Carr’s first field-goal attempt wasn’t until 7:23 remained in the first half.

“That was a big focus,” Walker said of shutting down Carr. “He’s had a really big year so far and then as a point guard, my competitiveness, I took it personally and wanted to step up to the plate and make it really tough on him. I feel like I did that while I was in the game. I made the shots tough for him and I made him make some hard decisions, whether it was passing or scoring.

“I thought we did a great job as team with our ball-screen coverages, our one-on-one defense, making him miss. But they had some other players step up, make shots and play really well for them.”

That, obviously, would be Robbins, giving the Buckeyes someone else to worry about.

“He was a big part of what we were trying to do,” Holtmann said of Robbins. “We knew they’re a really good team. It’s the best Minnesota team we’ve played. We knew they had other weapons that could hurt you across the board but he was certainly a big focal point. That allowed some of their other guys to get some open looks, but when you have a guy like him who’s a tremendous talent it opens up some other things. They’ve got really good balance across the board, both with their guard play and their bigs.”

Technical

Ohio State led the game for a total of 18 seconds, and Minnesota reclaimed it for good with a little bit of help.

Washington threw a no-look pass to Liddell for a two-handed dunk with 5:54 left in the first half that made it a 28-27 Buckeyes lead, but Minnesota went right back to Robbins who scored from the left block to make it 29-28. One second later, play was stopped as a technical foul was issued on Ohio State. Officially, it was recorded as an “administrative technical foul.” Per multiple Twitter followers who watched the Big Ten Network broadcast, the in-game announcers (who due to COVID-19 weren’t physically in the arena) cited Ohio State assistant coach Jake Diebler as being at fault.

Turns out, it was Holtmann who earned the technical.

“I don’t want to get into specifics of it but clearly they didn’t appreciate what was said,” he said. “That’s on me. I take responsibility for it. They just didn’t appreciate what was said.”

It was the first technical for Holtmann since a 90-70 win against Iowa on February 26, 2019.

Efficiency

The need for Washington to be productive offensively while also increasing his efficiency has been an ongoing battle for this Ohio State team. He entered the game second in scoring at 14.3 points per game, just behind Liddell at 14.4, but having taken a team-high 123 shots. Liddell had taken the second-most shots with 79, but he missed two games while dealing with mononucleosis.

Washington has taken at least nine shots in every game this season. Last time out, he had 13 points on a season-best 45.5% shooting (5 for 11) effort. Against the Golden Gophers, he was Ohio State’s lone dangerous scoring threat, and he scored his team-high 21 points on 7 for 12 (58.3%).

That’s the best-shooting game of the season for Washington, who is now 12 for his last 23 (52.2%).

“I thought Duane was good offensively, made good decisions for the most part,” Holtmann said. “I know he had three turnovers. His ball handling has to continue to improve. They made him an important point and focus and I thought for the most part he took good shots. The ball still sticks too much when the first option is taken away. He’s still got to move the ball a little more but good step forward for him across the board, we’ve got to be better collectively offensively and that’s on all of us.”

Missing Jallow

Ohio State appeared to get a significant boost leading into the game when junior guard/forward Musa Jallow rejoined the team in time to make the trip to Minneapolis. A junior, Jallow had grown into a significant rotation player for the Buckeyes thanks in large part to his defensive versatility and overall athleticism.

More:Musa Jallow returns for Ohio State for Minnesota game after COVID-19 contact tracing

He missed the last game, a 36-point beatdown of Nebraska last Wednesday, due to COVID-19 contact tracing. Against the Golden Gophers, Jallow played for only 62 seconds during the first half and did not return until 5:27 remained in the game and Minnesota was already ahead 72-55.

“He had a scouting report issue early and some of that was he just wasn’t with us for a week, but he’s a smart kid,” Holtmann said of Jallow. “He normally picks up on those things really quickly.”

Jallow’s six minutes of playing time were a season low.

Numbers

*Ohio State has now lost nine straight road games against ranked Big Ten opponents.

*This was the first time Ohio State and Minnesota faced each other as ranked opponents since the No. 21 Golden Gophers beat the No. 24 Buckeyes inside The Barn exactly 12 years to the day of this game.

*With six points, Ohio State’s Justice Sueing topped the 1,000-point career scoring mark.

*The Golden Gophers have won three straight against Ohio State since they had a five-game winning streak from Jan. 20, 1996-Jan. 24, 1998.

*During those three losses, the Buckeyes have led for a total of 3:45.

Quotable

“One thing I know for sure, I’m a junior and it’s not gonna get easier. No matter where you go, who you’re playing against, the Big Ten is the toughest conference in the country. We knew how tough they were going to be. They’re rolling right now and they were comfortable tonight in their own arena. Our job was to come in here and make them uncomfortable and we didn’t do our job at a high enough level. They got what they wanted. Punked us, basically. It was their night. Big one on Wednesday.” – Washington

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy