Ohio State offense rises to occasion against 'elite' Wisconsin defense

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch

If a good defense beats a good offense, it might be time to start thinking about this Ohio State offense as elite once again.

Needing to replace its primary ballhandlers from a team that finished with the nation’s No. 4 team in adjusted offensive efficiency according to KenPom.com, Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann spent much of the preseason stressing that these Buckeyes had a chance to be pretty good offensively but might struggle to reach last year’s numbers. Then, on Friday, Holtmann looked at the challenge that No. 22 Wisconsin posed in Saturday’s Big Ten home opener for the No. 21 Buckeyes and described the Badgers as “elite” defensively.

Despite a rash of first-half turnovers, Ohio State put up 73 points against a team that had held five of its first nine opponents below 60 and built a 23-point second-half lead in an 18-point win. The performance moved the Buckeyes to No. 5 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency and, perhaps, showed the potential of what could still be ahead.

“When we run our stuff, I feel like we’re the best team in the nation, easily,” third-year forward E.J. Liddell said. “When everybody’s doing the simple things, making the right plays, taking the right shots, I feel like we can be up there with anybody.”

His stat line backed up his bravado. After scoring 14, 14 and 15 points in Ohio State’s last three games, Liddell put up a Big Ten career-high 28 on 11-of-16 shooting against a Wisconsin team ranked No. 15 in adjusted defensive efficiency. It wasn’t the most efficient game of the season for the Buckeyes – their rating of 102.5 was their fourth-lowest of the season – but it was the second-worst mark allowed the Badgers this season.

Although Liddell did plenty of heavy lifting, the production came from across the roster. Zed Key was the only other player in double figures with 11 points while five other players finished between 5-9 points.

The only hiccup – and it was persistent for much of the first half – came in the form of turnovers. The Buckeyes had 10 by halftime but would only finish with 14.

“We’ve been one of the best offensive teams in the country in spite of our turnovers, really,” coach Chris Holtmann said. “We have a top-10 offense again. We’ll see if it can be consistent with that, but our versatility on the front line really helps and then if our guard play can continue to grow, we had some good moments from some of those guys tonight, that will really help us continue to have an elite offense.”

Key and Liddell’s growing partnership, along with the offensive emergence of Kyle Young, has allowed the Buckeyes to create mismatches in the frontcourt as their young backcourt figures things out. All four of Liddell’s assists came during the second half, with two going to Key for dunks and a third to Young for a layup.

“It’s so important in today’s game to have versatile front-line guys because it gives you flexibility and freedom in your offense,” Holtmann said. “I don’t think you can have a top-10 offense, an elite offense without versatility on your front line, the ability to deck it and in some cases be three-level scorers.”

Four of those turnovers came from Malaki Branham, who was scoreless in 13:54. Fellow freshman Meechie Johnson stepped in, scoring eight points in 19:01 and single-handedly powered a second-half run with a 3-pointer, a steal and a hockey assist on a Key dunk all on consecutive possessions.

The Buckeyes ran, too: their 14 fast-break points were a season-high mark.

“In the first half, we had some turnovers we didn’t like that was on ourselves (that) they didn’t force us into,” fifth-year guard Jamari Wheeler, who had nine points, five assists and two turnovers in 30:08, said. “Once we take care of the ball, get good shots and execute like we want to, we get anything we want.”

The Buckeyes now have a week to rest after winning three games in seven days. Ohio State’s next game will be Saturday in Las Vegas against No. 10 Kentucky as part of the CBSSports Classic. It’ll be a test against a Wildcat team that had allowed just one of its first eight opponents to crack the 70-point mark.

 “When we do the simple things and take care of the ball, I feel like we get a great shot every time,” Liddell said. “We’re going to keep building and getting better and guys are going to keep gaining confidence.”

E.J. Liddell gets turnover lecture

He’s emerged as a Big Ten (and possibly national) player of the year candidate, but Liddell’s struggles to consistently take care of the basketball have been a source of recent frustration. Wednesday, he finished with a career-high six turnovers and played a season-low 24 minutes in the 85-74 win against Towson.

He finished with two against Wisconsin, both in the first half. After the game, he said the coaches presented him with plenty of film and a statistic that hit home.

“I wasn’t really aware of how many turnovers I had until the coaches said something,” Liddell said. “I was the non-guard leading the nation in turnovers. That kind of stuck with me. We watched some film over it, all my turnovers. Correctable things, being stronger with the ball and I feel like I was doing that tonight.”

With an increased offensive role this season, Holtmann has said that some turnovers from Liddell are expected. It’s the ones where the ball is taken from him, or the sloppy ones, where the coach said he wants to see improvement from his player.

Buckeyes basketball:Towson keeps it interesting, but Ohio State pulls away in third straight win

Assistant coach Ryan Pedon put together a chart showing him past players at his position and looking at their turnover rate.

“You want kids to be aware of it and understand these are specific ways they can get better,” Holtmann said. “At the same time, he’s got to play with some aggressiveness. Can’t freeze him up. There’s a balance there. That’s going to be a challenge for him.”

Ohio State eventually cleans up turnovers against Wisconsin

Liddell wasn’t on turnover island during the first half against the Badgers. The Buckeyes had 10 turnovers through the first 20 minutes: three from Malaki Branham, two each from Cedric Russell and Liddell and one apiece from Kyle Young, Johnson and Wheeler.

Wisconsin had a 9-2 advantage in points off turnovers at the half. During the second half, Ohio State had a 7-2 advantage in that category after only turning it over four times.

“Our defensive rebounding and our turnovers, those are the two areas where we’ve got to figure out how to get better,” Holtmann said.

Ohio State’s 41 defensive rebounds were a season high. The Buckeyes out-rebounded Wisconsin 49-28, their best margin of the season.

“We just didn’t want to give them second-chance efforts,” said Liddell, who had nine rebounds. “We wanted to play good defense in the half-court and finish possessions and I feel like we did that tonight. All five guys on the glass. Nobody leaked out. We wanted it more today, I feel like.”

Meechie Johnson Jr.’s outburst powers second half

It’s hard to overstate the importance of a three-minute stretch during the second half for second-year Ohio State guard Meechie Johnson Jr.

With Ohio State ahead 39-31, both teams combined for seven straight empty possessions during a stretch that saw the Buckeyes miss four straight shots but keep the lead at eight points. In need of a spark, Johnson provided with a 3-pointer from the right wing that gave the Buckeyes their first double-digit lead of the game with 14:58 to play.

Buckeyes basketball:Ohio State leaning on young guards Branham, Johnson at near-unequaled rate in Big Ten

The lead was down to 44-36 with 12:18 left when Johnson hit another 3, this time from the left wing. With 13,856 fans yelling “Meeeechie” as the shot swished through the net, Johnson raced back downcourt and saw 6-9 Wisconsin forward Tyler Wahl trying to work from the left block. Johnson dug down from his spot, ripped the ball from his hands and pushed it back upcourt.

His no-look pass found Liddell cutting through the paint, and he laid it off to Zed Key for a slam dunk with 11:45 to play that gave Ohio State a 49-36 lead and forced a Wisconsin timeout. The Badgers would not get within single digits again.

“He changed speeds tonight well,” Holtmann said of Johnson. “Had a really good play on the break where he made simple easy plays. I thought Meechie making a couple time-and-space 3s where he could get his feet set, he made some good decisions, made a really good pass on a rejected (play) to Zed in the first half. Really happy for him.”

Johnson finished with 8 points, two rebounds, two assists, a turnover, steal and block in 19:01. It was his third game of 8 points during the last six games and came on the heels of a 3-point, one-turnover effort in 14 minutes against Towson on Wednesday night.

“Meechie is still a young guy,” Liddell said. “As he keeps getting more confident in himself, he’s going to be really good this year and he’s going to help us out a lot.”

Cedric Russell makes an impact

A graduate transfer from Louisiana, fifth-year guard Cedric Russell has had his struggles acclimating to the high-major level. He announced himself with a 12-point performance off the bench in the comeback win against No. 1 Duke, but since had scored 3 points in the win at Penn State and gone scoreless against Towson.

Saturday, he had seven points, all during the first half, to help Ohio State eke out a 34-29 lead despite 10 turnovers.

Buckeyes basketball:'The right way': Ohio State's Cedric Russell refuses to take the easy path

“He’s got to keep playing well and earning the right to play more,” Holtmann said. “We have some young guys that are going to continue to play. Cedric really stabilized us. I didn’t think Ced was as ready to play last game (against Towson). He was really ready to play today and he was terrific.”

Quotable

“He’s such a weapon. Kid can roll out of bed and get you 15 or 20. That’s just how he’s wired. He’s always been that way.” – Holtmann, on Liddell

“This was a busy stretch here. We all needed a mental break. I know I need a mental break and a couple cold beverages for sure. I’m sure our players need a mental break and some Gatorade. It’s been a rough stretch. We have finals this week, so it’s a big week for them academically. We’ll turn the page to getting better and talk about Saturday. We know it’s going to be a road environment in a lot of ways and playing an elite team. Let’s enjoy this one here for a moment.” – Holtmann

“He’s playing like a dog. We’re going to keep following. Keep playing to his level.” – Jamari Wheeler, on Liddell

“When he gets it, I feel like it’s a bucket every time. I saw someone call him Key Abdul-Jabbar. I thought that was pretty funny. When Zed gets in the post I’m always looking for him high-low. He holds great position. He’s very strong and he’s going to keep improving as the year goes on.” – Liddell, on Key

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy