Big Ten biggie on tap as No. 7 Ohio State visits No. 8 Iowa
Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann credits his players’ mental toughness for pushing the No. 7 Buckeyes near the top of the Big Ten standings after losing two of their first three conference games.
The Buckeyes (14-4, 8-4 Big Ten) have won three straight and six of seven going into their Thursday showdown at No. 8 Iowa (13-4, 7-3).
“There’s no doubt that this group has been a phenomenal group to coach,” Holtmann said. “It really has. In the midst of a pandemic, in the midst of a lot of question marks about our team, it’s been a phenomenal group to coach.
“The challenge for us overall is us getting better here in this closing month-and-a-half stretch and improving in some of those areas where need to.”
Iowa defeated visiting Michigan State 84-78 on Tuesday to break a two-game losing streak.
The game was rescheduled from Jan. 14 because of COVID-19 related issues in the Spartans’ program.
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery wishes he had more time to prepare for the Buckeyes.
“I think they have been really impressive,” he said. “They are consistent. They have got depth. They defend. They move the ball, share the ball.”
Holtmann would agree that his players are unselfish and have put any egos aside. It helps that he can go 11 deep and not lose much efficiency.
In a 79-62 win over Michigan State on Sunday, E.J. Liddell led the Buckeyes with 20 points while Justice Sueing had 17 and CJ Walker 10 points off the bench. Three others — Justin Ahrens, Seth Towns and Duane Washington Jr. — each contributed least seven points.
“They have got some guys that are really playing well,” McCaffery said. “E.J. is really one of the best players in the country, and now they have got CJ back (from injury). That’s a help. Ahrens shooting the ball, Towns off the bench, (Kyle) Young is terrific, as is Washington. They have got a lot of weapons.”
Liddell has scored at least 20 points in four of the past five games.
“His play has really been phenomenal,” Holtmann said. “His growth, it’s hard to really overstate the impact he’s had as a sophomore. He just continues to get better in front of our eyes. We saw it coming last year, really about this time was when he started to hit his stride. We really saw him come into form in February and March.”
As good as Liddell has been, Iowa’s Luka Garza has been even better, averaging 26.5 points and 8.8 rebounds per game.
“He’s a little bit of a throwback,” Holtmann said on his radio show Monday. “I think he can be an NBA player given his skill set.”
The coach noted that Garza has a strong supporting cast.
“I think for them, it’s not just him, and that’s what makes Iowa’s offense historically good,” Holtmann said. “They’ve got great skill. I think across the board it can’t just be about Garza, but (we can’t afford to let him) go for 40 and 15 against us. There has to be an awareness of him and how we’re going to attack him.”
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