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Buckeyes battling on the boards without traditional big bodies

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State forward Seth Towns pulls down a rebound in front of Rutgers center Myles Johnson in the Buckeyes' 80-68 win on Dec. 23.

Steve Pikiell knows a thing or two about toughness on a basketball court. Now in his fifth season as Rutgers' coach, he has overseen the growth of a program long associated with physical, gritty play and little else.

So when he described the Ohio State team that swept the season series with the Scarlet Knights as the most physical they’ve played this season, it merited some serious consideration. And given how the Buckeyes dominated the glass in those two wins, it’s pretty clear what Pikiell was talking about.

The Buckeyes this season don’t possess a true center or a bruising post presence in the traditional sense. They do, however, have a twosome of E.J. Liddell and Kyle Young, along with a few capable guards, who have enabled Ohio State to be among the Big Ten's best teams at rebounding.

In conference play, the Buckeyes entered Wednesday night’s game against Northwestern third in rebounding offense, rebounding defense and rebounding margin despite not having a single player ranked among the individual top 10.

“Some of it has to do, we’re a little bit bigger at some of the guard spots,” coach Chris Holtmann said Tuesday. “That’s helped.”

Led by Young at 6.7 per game, seven Buckeyes average at least three rebounds per game in Big Ten play. Liddell is next at 6.2, followed by forward Justice Sueing at 5.5. Young is listed at 6 feet 8, while Liddell and Sueing are 6-7. Ohio State’s roster averages out as the 122nd tallest in Division I, tied with Indiana for 11th in the Big Ten.

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In a league with behemoths including Iowa’s Luka Garza, Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson, Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn and even Minnesota’s Liam Robbins, it puts a premium on effort and agility for the Buckeyes.

“We definitely take pride in being the more physical, tough team,” Young said after Saturday’s road win over Rutgers. “That’s going to get you a lot. It’s a lot of the small things that you can build that reputation around. It’s something we definitely take pride in and need to continue to improve.”

Rutgers in particular has proven to be a positive matchup for the Buckeyes, who outrebounded the Scarlet Knights 88-54 in their season series. But Minnesota, for example, got 27 points and 14 rebounds from the 7-foot Robbins in a 17-point home win against the Buckeyes on Jan. 3.

Afterward, Liddell publicly took the blame for not playing hard enough and bringing the necessary physicality to match Robbins.

“I can’t speak for E.J. directly, but coming off that game, we didn’t necessarily play the way we wanted to play,” Young said. “We didn’t play tough enough, physical enough. It’s something with toughness and physicality we have to bring every game.”

Holtmann pointed to the contributions from players such as junior Musa Jallow and freshman Gene Brown III (3.0 rebounds per game apiece), particularly on the offensive end where the Buckeyes are pulling down 34.4% of their misses.

That currently stands as Ohio State’s best mark since the 2011-12 season.

“Maybe the most significant difference has been on the offensive glass,” Holtmann said. “Gene’s helped with that. Musa has helped with that. Justice has helped with that. We’ve got to continue to get better on the defensive glass and emphasize the offensive glass as being an important part of our overall efficiency for us to be successful.”

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy

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