Despite playing in only six games this season, Ohio State has already been battle tested against multiple AP Top 25 teams — but Tuesday will be its most difficult challenge yet.
No. 1 Duke (7-0, 0-0 Atlantic Coastal Conference) heads to Columbus coming off a major win over then-No. 1 Gonzaga 84-81 to earn the Continental Tire Challenge crown and snag the top rank in the AP poll from the Bulldogs. Although the Blue Devils are likely the toughest opponent the Buckeyes (4-2, 0-0 Big Ten) will face all season, senior forward Justin Ahrens said the team is still taking a day-to-day approach.
“The biggest thing is what we’ve been locking on the past couple days, just taking it one day at a time,” Ahrens said. “Obviously Duke is a really good team coming into our arena. We’re excited for it and ready for the challenge.”
It’s a historic season for the Blue Devils, as legendary head coach Mike Krzyzewski is set to retire at the year’s end. Krzyzewski has led the Duke program to five national titles, 12 Final Fours and 15 ACC Tournament crowns.
In recent years, Krzyzewski has thrived off of “one-and-done” rosters, and this season is no different.
Freshman forward Paolo Banchero — who is a projected top five pick in the 2022 NBA draft — has been dominant in his first, and likely only, season in the program. The 6-foot-10 standout points up a team-high 18.3 points and 7.6 rebounds per game, while shooting 53.2 percent from the field.
Ohio State’s frontcourt, specifically junior forward E.J. Liddell, will likely be tasked with slowing Banchero down, which the Belleville, Illinois, native said will be a challenge.
“Everybody knows how good of a player he is. You just don’t become the potential No. 1 pick without working,” Liddell said. “I’m just going to approach the game how I approach every other game: Just go out there and play my hardest.”
Banchero’s partner in the frontcourt, sophomore center Mark Williams, is also a key piece of Krzyzewski’s final team. Standing at 7-foot-1, Williams hits on 65.3 percent of his shots while dropping 9.9 points and 6.4 rebounds per game.
Williams’ primary impact comes on the defensive end, where he collects an ACC-best 3.3 blocks per game.
Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann placed an emphasis on the duo of Banchero and Williams as a dynamic threat to the Buckeyes’ interior defense.
“They’ve got interior size. Mark Williams is a fantastic defensive player,” Holtmann said. “Paolo’s size is impressive and his versatility, I think, is even more impressive.”
The Blue Devils’ backcourt and wing players support their interior well, with junior forward Wendell Moore Jr. being a dominant presence on the wing. Moore’s ability to get the bucket and his mid-range shooting is a major piece to his game, as he scores 17.9 points per game while shooting 72.5 percent on 2-pointers.
Moore is Duke’s primary offensive facilitator, leading the ACC with 5.7 assists per game. He also shoots the 3-ball at the highest clip of any starter, shooting 34.4 percent from 3.
On the flip side, Ohio State’s backcourt has struggled to find the bucket this season as freshmen Meechie Johnson Jr. and Malaki Branham, alongside graduate Jamari Wheeler, have combined for just 18.8 points per game. Duke’s starting guards freshman Trevor Keels and sophomore Jeremy Roach combine for 21.3 points per game.
While the Buckeyes’ guards have struggled to find a rhythm offensively, Liddell said it comes down to the unit’s confidence.
“As time goes on, confidence will grow. We don’t want to be the best right now, we want to be at our best at the end of the year,” Liddell said. “Confidence has to grow for all of the guards and everyone on the team, really.”
Tuesday’s game carries plenty of significance as it’s the first time the Buckeyes play a No. 1 seed since 2018 against Michigan State — which Ohio State won 80-64. Krzyzewski’s farewell tour adds to the overall importance of the Blue Devils’ visit, creating an early-season high stakes affair.
With a younger squad than previous seasons in the Holtmann era, Liddell said the Buckeyes aren’t focused on the outside noise and added pressure of the game.
“I feel like everybody knows how big of a deal this is; he’s been coach for 40-plus years so it’s exciting, but we don’t approach this game any differently,” Liddell said. “We want to go out there and compete and win any chance we get.”