While the biggest sports story out of The Ohio State University this week may be the hiring of Urban Meyer as head football coach, the men's basketball team re-takes center stage in Columbus once again tonight, as they play the Duke Blue Devils in a matchup between two of the nation’s premier programs in college basketball.
The beloved Buckeyes football team is coming off of a disappointing season in which they lost to bitter rival Michigan for the first time in eight years and finished with a record of 6-6. That has only raised the interest and expectations of the Ohio State community in the basketball team, which is considered one of the favorites in the entire nation to win this year’s national championship. The Buckeyes are currently ranked second in both the AP and ESPN/USA Today polls.
Of course, Duke is a perennial national championship powerhouse. Duke’s head coach, Mike Krzyzewski, became the all-time winningest coach in Division I men's college basketball earlier this year and has led the Blue Devils to four national championships in his tenure there. The Blue Devils are currently ranked third in the AP poll and fourth in the ESPN/USA Today coaches’ poll.
This may very well be the most anticipated Ohio State home basketball game ever. Any time Duke basketball comes to town, it is a big deal, but the fact that the Ohio State Buckeyes have such high expectations this year makes it a much greater deal. With both teams ranked within the top five, this game will be a true test of how good both teams truly are.
That said, while the Buckeyes are the favorites to win in this game, I believe this would be a much more meaningful victory for them. The Buckeyes have certainly had their share of success under head coach Thad Matta, the expectations on them are higher than ever this year and a victory over Duke would really cement the Buckeyes’ status as a championship favorite.
While the Buckeyes have the higher ranking, the Blue Devils have far more historical prestige as a basketball program, so this victory would truly make a statement.
As for the game itself, there is no reason to expect anything less than a tremendous battle between these two powerhouses. Expect this game to be close throughout with numerous lead changes, and expect a raucous environment inside the Schottenstein Center.
Both of these teams are talented and deep. The matchup to watch inside will be between Ohio State sophomore big man Jared Sullinger and Duke junior big man Mason Plumlee. Sullinger is a more well-rounded post player with better strength, but Plumlee is the superior athlete. Sullinger should have the upper hand in this matchup, but both players should be major factors in this game.
Both players are averaging a double-double this season, although Sullinger’s 18.8 points and 10.7 rebounds are superior to Plumlee’s 11.4 points and 10.0 rebounds.
Ohio State’s top scoring threat from the perimeter is senior guard William Buford, who has been playing the best basketball of his career. Duke junior Seth Curry is the Blue Devils’ top perimeter scoring threat, a very dangerous shooter who is resembling his older brother Stephen more and more as he gains experience.
Each team has had a second frontcourt player really emerge this year. For Ohio State, that player has been sophomore Deshaun Thomas. Thomas played a small role off the bench as a freshman, but this year, he is emerging into another star for the Buckeyes, both on the offensive and defensive ends of the floor.
For Duke, junior Ryan Kelly is off to a tremendous start. At 6'11", Kelly will be the tallest player on the floor tonight. He is not a big defensive presence, but he is improving, and has been Duke’s second-leading scorer this year.
While Curry handles the point for the Blue Devils, he is not a natural point guard like Ohio State sophomore Aaron Craft. Craft is the best defensive point guard in all of college basketball, and he should play a big role in containing Curry tonight. However, Buford is going to have his hands full defensively himself, as he will have to match up against Duke’s freshman X-factor, Austin Rivers.
Rivers is a highly-touted freshman who is already off to a terrific start this season, scoring 14.4 points per game. Outside of possibly Sullinger, Rivers has the most pure talent of any player who will step on the floor in Value City Arena tonight, so the Blue Devils will be expecting a big game out of him.
This game could really go either way, but in this matchup of college basketball titans, I think Ohio State will win by four. The Buckeyes’ keys to victory will be Sullinger’s ability to establish his presence inside, and the ability of Ohio State’s tremendous defensive backcourt of Craft, Buford and sophomore Lenzelle Smith, Jr. to slow down Duke’s scoring guards, especially Curry and Rivers.
Duke is a young team that appears to be getting acclimated quickly, but going up against such a talented Buckeyes team on the road presents a huge test tonight, one that I think gets the better of them.