After taking a one-year hiatus as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2021 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is set to return today as the opening round gets underway in Indiana. Ohio State, which drew a second seed in the South Region on Selection Sunday, will be one of 32 teams officially opening their tournament run when they take on the 15-seeded Oral Roberts Golden Eagles in West Lafayette at 3 p.m.
Ohio State (21-9) is coming off a deep run in the Big Ten Tournament last week, one that ended with an overtime loss to Illinois in Sunday’s championship game. While the Buckeyes fell just short of capturing a conference title, perhaps more importantly for head coach Chris Holtmann and his players were the good vibes that appear to have returned to the team after closing the regular season with four consecutive losses.
En route to the matchup with Illinois, Ohio State knocked off two teams in Purdue and Michigan that have been slotted as a four seed and, in the Wolverines’ case, one of the top four overall seeds in the NCAA tournament. Combined with the performance shown against Illinois, in which Ohio State had to battle back from large deficits in both regulation periods, the Buckeyes are battle tested in win-or-go-home situations and poised for a lengthy stay in Indiana in the coming weeks.
During Tuesday’s media session, Ohio State guard Duane Washington Jr. said his team’s run in the Big Ten Tournament has served the Buckeyes well in getting them ready for the rigors and grind of March Madness while bringing back some confidence following the rough regular-season close.
“The Big Ten is the best basketball conference in the country,” Washington Jr. said. “I’ve said it multiple times, in multiple interviews. I don’t think there is another conference that can get you ready for the NCAA Tournament like the Big Ten can.”
In order for that stay not to come to a stunning and abrupt end today, the Buckeyes will have to contend with, statistically, one of the top shooting teams in the field in Oral Roberts. Winners of the Summit League Tournament, the Golden Eagles come into today’s matchup averaging 82 points per game, good for 12th across all Division I teams.
Oral Roberts (16-10) is especially lethal from three-point range, where it averages a nation-best 11 makes per game on 39% shooting, which is good for the eighth-best average in Division I.
“We’re obviously playing a really good team to open in Oral Roberts, who can really score the ball,” Holtmann said on Tuesday. “One of the best shooting teams I’ve seen on film, and their numbers back that up.”
Oral Roberts is led by the nation’s leading scorer, guard Max Abmas, who is averaging just over 24 points per game this season for the Golden Eagles. While not particularly big at just 6-foot-1-inch tall, Abmas can score from all areas of the floor. Holtmann called the sophomore a “dynamic guard” that Oral Roberts “plays through at a high level.”
In particular, Abmas is a volume shooter from three who is connecting on better than 43% of those attempts, making him the clear number one threat to making life difficult for Ohio State in the opening round of play.
Abmas is no stranger to monster performances, either, having scored at least 30 points in seven games this season and more than 40 points on two occasions.
“It’s going to be a great matchup,” Washington Jr. said of Abmas. “I’m super excited for our team to go against somebody like that … obviously, he is a very great player. He does shoot from wherever in the gym. At that point, you just have to have good contests on his jumpers, everywhere he is make sure there is someone around him at all times, and make sure you get a hand up.”
While Admas is unquestionably the straw that stirs the drink for Oral Roberts, the Golden Eagles aren’t lacking secondary scorers. Kevin Obanor, a 6-foot-8-inch forward, is averaging 18 points a game this season, and he has proven both willing and capable to shoot from distance, hitting at a 47% average. The tallest member of a rotation that lacks overall size, Obanor is not shy about crashing the boards, either, leading the team in rebounding with nearly 10 a game.
Both will need to score points in droves for Oral Roberts to have any shot at knocking off Ohio State as the Golden Eagles also feature, perhaps, the worst defense in the tournament. The Buckeyes figure to have little trouble scoring against a team that gave up an average of 76 points this season, which ranks 287th in the country in scoring defense.
Ohio State will still be a bit shorthanded with the continued absence of forward Kyle Young, who suffered a head injury in the Buckeyes’ Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal win over Purdue and has yet to return. Holtmann said on Tuesday there is still no update to be given on Young’s status, making his return this weekend unlikely.
The winner of today’s game will take on the winner of seven-seeded Florida and 10-seeded Virginia Tech on Sunday.
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.