Ohio State won back-to-back road games to open Big Ten play for the first time in school history, but coach Thad Matta is still concerned about his team’s defense.
A return home could help the second-ranked Buckeyes have a better showing at that end of the court, especially with a tepid-shooting Minnesota team visiting Sunday.
Ohio State (15-0, 2-0) is off to its best start since winning its first 17 games in 1990-91, but needed to rally from a halftime deficit then thwart Iowa’s comeback in a 73-68 victory Tuesday.
“We win games by defense, and our defense obviously wasn’t clicking,” freshman forward Jared Sullinger said. “Our intensity on the defensive end was not there.”
Sullinger had 11 of his 24 points in the first 8 1/2 minutes of the second half and pulled down 12 rebounds to help bail out his team, which has allowed an average of 67.5 points in its first two conference games. The Buckeyes gave up 53.8 points per game during its 13 non-conference contests.
“It is (a concern). There were times (against Iowa) where it was really, really good,” Matta said of his team’s defensive effort. “Statistically we were pretty good … but standard-wise it wasn’t good enough.”
Ohio State might have a better effort with a return to Columbus. The Buckeyes have allowed 57.8 points per game there in Matta’s six-plus seasons and have the Big Ten’s lowest average this season (52.7).
That trend could continue against the Golden Gophers (12-3, 1-2), who are averaging 63.0 points and shooting 40.6 percent in Big Ten play.
Despite those offensive woes, Minnesota avoided its third straight loss with a 67-63 win over Indiana on Tuesday.
“In the two games we lost we didn’t have (stamina),” coach Tubby Smith said. “The fatigue hit us and we weren’t really as strong as we should’ve been in both the Wisconsin game and the Michigan State game. So I think getting early rest for Al (Nolen) and Blake (Hoffarber) saves their legs.”
Hoffarber, averaging a team-best 13.8 points this season, paced the Gophers with 16. Trevor Mbakwe added 11 points while tying career highs with 16 rebounds and five blocks.
Hoffarber was one of four players to score double figures last season at Ohio State, but Minnesota was hardly competitive in an 85-63 loss. The Gophers have averaged 58.5 points during four straight losses in Columbus.
Ohio State blew out Minnesota 90-61 in last season’s Big Ten tournament championship game, but has split its last six overall matchups. Hoffarber scored a career-high 27 points in a 73-62 home win over the Buckeyes last Jan. 9.
Junior guard William Buford averaged 18.7 points on 56.4 percent shooting in last season’s three matchups for Ohio State. David Lighty made 63.3 percent of his shots while averaging 15.3 points.
Lighty is 10 rebounds shy of joining Evan Turner and Jim Jackson as the only Ohio State players with at least 1,000 points, 500 rebounds and 300 assists in his career.
Devoe Joseph was one of two players to score in double figures for the Gophers during their conference title game loss, but won’t play again for Minnesota. Forced to sit out six games earlier this season for a violation of team rules, Joseph was granted a release from his scholarship Wednesday after deciding to transfer.
Ohio State leads the series 76-55 and holds a 47-18 edge in Columbus.