The final game of the Thursday features the top freshman in the Big Ten on the Buckeyes' side, and an experienced team that has disappointed for much of the season in the Gophers. This is a tough matchup for Ohio State, as the team has struggled against teams with length. It took overtime for the Buckeyes to beat Minnesota in early January.
When Ohio State and Minnesota squared off in the barn in early January, D'Angelo Russell had the Buckeyes looking for a rout after the first twenty minutes, scoring 25 points. But the Gophers bottled Russell up in the second half, holding the freshman phenom to just 2 points and battling back from a 12-point halftime deficit to force overtime. A little curl jumper from the right side of the lane by Marc Loving with 5.6 seconds remaining gave Ohio State a 74-72 win.
When Ohio State has the ball
The Buckeyes seemed to be two different teams this season depending on whether they were at home or on the road. Ohio State lost only two games in Columbus this season, but dropped seven of eleven away from home, which may not spur much confidence for a neutral site event like the conference tournament. Thad Matta's teams have historically done very well in the Big Ten tourney, though, winning the event four times. The Buckeyes will also have the best player on the floor in Russell, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year and first-team All-Conference selection, who averages 19.2 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 5.2 assists per game. A good showing in Chicago for Ohio State could do wonders for the team's NCAA tournament seeding.
When Minnesota has the ball
After losing five of six to end the regular season, Minnesota pulled out an 80-68 win over Rutgers on Wednesday night thanks to hot second half shooting. Junior Joey King led the way for the Gophers with 20 points thanks to a 6-9 night from beyond the arc. Big man Maurice Walker had 18 points and 9 boards in January's overtime loss, and is the type of player that has given the Buckeyes fits over the course of the season. The Gophers are opportunistic on defense, being fifth in the country with just under 10 steal per game, and use that to put up points in a hurry.
A lot will depend on which Ohio State team shows up to play on Thursday night. If Minnesota can neutralize the damage Russell does, as it did in the second half the first time these two teams met, and pressure the Buckeyes' other ball handlers into turnovers, it could be a long night for the scarlet and gray. But if Russell gets going and involves his teammates, Ohio State's athleticism may be too much for the Gophers to overcome. Buckeye Jae'Sean Tate, himself an All-Freshman selection, is also playing at a higher level and getting more minutes than he was in January. Tate should cause his usual havoc in the paint, which may help to limit the damage Minnesota can do underneath.