With Jamari Wheeler ailing, Buckeyes hope to minimize layoff effects at Minnesota

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch

Numbers aside, Chris Holtmann does not believe all lengthy midseason layoffs are created equal.

Thursday night, No. 16 Ohio State will return to game action at Minnesota. It will be the first game for the Buckeyes since hosting IUPUI on Jan. 18, a 46-point blowout that allowed Holtmann to rest his starters and empty the bench. When Nebraska’s roster was impacted by COVID-19, the game between the two teams scheduled for four days later was postponed.

Ohio State’s nine-day layoff isn’t even half as long as the one it endured in mid-December, when the virus handed the Buckeyes a 22-day break, but it’s another stop in what has become an erratic schedule. The hope is that the effects of this one won’t be quite as pronounced as the last time.

“The layoff before, we had a lot of guys who just couldn’t practice for 10-12 days,” Holtmann said. “While we’ve had some guys not be able to practice, it’s not been near as significant.”

The majority of the roster has been able to practice during this gap in between games, although injuries have played a part. Guards Meechie Johnson Jr. (facial fracture) and Jamari Wheeler (foot/ankle) are both game-time decisions for the Golden Gophers, thinning the ranks to the point that alumnus Keyshawn Woods was brought in as a temporary practice player as permissible by a little-known NCAA rule.

Ohio State could be on the cusp of starting a pair of freshmen guards at Minnesota. Wheeler has been unable to practice since aggravating the injury against IUPUI, while Johnson has missed the last three games after suffering the injury during a Jan. 11 practice.

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“Those guys are both day-to-day and will be game-time decisions,” Holtmann said. “I don’t think this is going to be a long-term thing with Jamari. We’re going to do our best. He’s a tough kid.”

Wheeler has never missed a game in his college career, appearing in all 143 games during his five seasons.

Holtmann said the Buckeyes haven’t been able to have a consistent group practicing during the last week, but the positive is that it’s not due to a bunch of negative tests like in December.

“It definitely makes this layoff different,” junior forward E.J. Liddell, who is 12 points shy of 1,000 for his career, said. “We’ve just been trying to stay sharp, staying in shape, doing game reps even though we can’t play until tomorrow. Staying sharp, that’s what we’ve been focusing on. Working on us.”

The same goes for Minnesota. Wednesday, coach Ben Johnson told local reporters that Eric Curry is day-to-day with an ankle injury, Eylijah Stephens “looks good to go,” Jamison Battle will be a game-time decision and is still feeling the effects of a non-COVID illness and Will Ramberg has a broken hand. All four missed Saturday’s home win against Rutgers.

Battle leads the Gophers in scoring at 18.0 points per game. Stephens is third at 12.0 and Curry fourth at 8.7.

“The Battle kid has been phenomenal,” Holtmann said. “(Payton) Willis was just phenomenal in their last home game. They’re an old team, well-coached. They really scheme for you defensively. Curry has really helped them. He’s one of those guys that was really good early in his career and battled some injuries. He’s out with an ankle injury, but this is a really good team.”

Willis, a senior guard, was named co-Big Ten player of the week after scoring 32 of Minnesota’s 68 points in Saturday’s win against the Scarlet Knights.

Ohio State has lost all three games it has played at Williams Arena during the Holtmann era, each of them by double figures. The closest was a 10-point defeat on Jan. 8, 2017, while the Gophers handed the Buckeyes a 17-point defeat last season.

Liddell said he’s aware of those numbers.

“I have not won at the Barn,” he said. “The first time I went there my freshman year, we were No. 2 and Marcus Carr gave us like 30-something. I’ll never forget that. Last year, we didn’t win either. Definitely want to go there and get a dub against a good team. Their record in the record might not reflect it, but they are a really good team and they can compete with anyone.”