Basketball Preview: Ohio State Travels to Xavier for Gavitt Games Matchup in First Road Game of the Season


The step up in competition starts now for the Buckeyes.

WHO WHERE WHEN TV
Xavier (2-0) Cintas Center 6:30 p.m. FS1

After beating three straight mid-major opponents to open the season, even if some came with more difficulty than others, Ohio State goes on the road for the first time Thursday to take on a Xavier program it hasn’t played since 2007’s memorable overtime tilt in the NCAA tournament.

RT @OhioStateOnBTN: It. Never. Gets. Old.

The highlight or the classic Gus Johnson call, that is.#OTD in 2007, Ron Lewis (@LEW_100) hit the dagger to send @OhioStateHoops to OT vs. Xavier. pic.twitter.com/A2k4kIBlIM

— Ron Lewis (@LEW_100) March 17, 2021

As part of the 2021 Gavitt Games, pitting Big Ten teams against those from the Big East, the Buckeyes will tip off against a 2-0 Musketeers team led by fourth-year head coach Travis Steele.

Like Ohio State, Xavier got off to a shaky start in the 2021-22 season with a one-possession win over Niagara in its season opener – a team that the Buckeyes struggled to put away in their own 10-point win against the Purple Eagles last Friday. The Musketeers found more breathing room in a 73-59 win over Kent State in their last effort prior to Thursday’s matchup, but surely each program will face its toughest test of the season thus far when Xavier hosts Ohio State at the Cintas Center in Cincinnati.

"They're a hungry group," Chris Holtmann said Wednesday. "Travis and his staff do a great job. It'll be a tremendous environment, and a great challenge for us here. Not just being an in-state opponent, but they're a good team. I think they're gonna have a very good year."

Under Steele, Xavier has failed to reach the heights attained by previous head coach Chris Mack, who led the program to eight NCAA tournament appearances in nine seasons. While a couple of Steele’s teams have peaked as fringe top-20 squads in the AP poll over the past two seasons, the Musketeers have not gotten to the Big Dance since 2017-18.

But that should have little bearing on the outcome of Thursday’s game, as a couple of long, high-scoring Xavier guards figure to give some trouble to a reworked Buckeye backcourt that is still getting the hang of things at the start of the year.

Ohio State might not have faced off with Xavier on the hardwood in 14 years, but Big Ten basketball fans will recognize a couple of names on the Musketeer roster nonetheless. Former Iowa center Jack Nunge, who scored 18 points against Ohio State in last year’s Feb. 4 matchup, will get another crack at the Buckeyes as a member of the Xavier program.

Pickerington, Ohio, native Jerome Hunter, a four-star, top-60 prospect in the class of 2018, transferred from Indiana to Xavier ahead of this season, and the 6-foot-7 forward is averaging 6.5 points and nine boards for the Musketeers so far in 2021-22.

Cold Musketeer start from 3-point range

Xavier has gotten off to one of the worst starts from 3-point range of any Division I team in the country. Only 29 teams are shooting a lower percentage from beyond the arc so far this season, as the Musketeers have hit just 25 percent of their attempts from deep through the first two games. No Xavier player is shooting better than 33 percent from the 3-point line (Nunge), and Xavier has hit just 14 of the 56 threes it’s attempted to start the season.

The Musketeers shot 8-for-27 in their three-point win over Niagara to open the season, and followed that up with an even worse 6-for-29 against Kent State.

In the first three games of the season, Holtmann has played 10, 11 and 12 players in successive contests. Xavier has played just eight in both games to open the year, which seems like a particularly low number given that it started the season against two mid-major opponents in Niagara and Kent State. The Buckeye rotation would be even longer if forwards Justice Sueing and Seth Towns weren’t dealing with injuries, but Ohio State may still be able to take advantage of the short Xavier bench anyway.

Three Important Buckeyes

The Buckeyes’ best perimeter defender could have his work cut out for him on Thursday. Wheeler, who has started all three games for Ohio State to start out the season, could be tasked with trying to limit Xavier leading scorer Paul Scruggs, who is off to a torrid start to his fifth season of college basketball. Scruggs is no pure point guard, and possesses 6-foot-5 size that would make him a handful for Wheeler at 6-foot-1, but the Penn State transfer said after the Buckeyes’ second game of the season that he has no reservations about asking the coaching staff to switch him onto an opponent’s leading scorer if they start to get hot.

Zed Key

Key is the only Buckeye aside from E.J. Liddell that is averaging double-digit points this season, and his stellar play to start the year has made him a starter over the likes of fifth-year senior Kyle Young – at least for now. But Key will be presented with challenges in this matchup that he has not yet faced so far this season.

Besides Nunge, who could present issues stretching the floor as a 7-footer, Key will also have to contend with 6-foot-11, 231-pound forward Dieonte Mills. The second-year Musketeer hasn’t been much of a scorer so far, but he’s averaging three offensive boards a game and two blocks per night – the fourth-most in the Big East thus far.

Eugene Brown

Justice Sueing’s absence looms large for the Buckeyes after Holtmann revealed Monday night that the fifth-year forward has a “significant” injury. Without the versatile 6-foot-7 wing, Ohio State may have to throw a myriad of options at Xavier wings like Scruggs and Colby Jones defensively, which could lead to increased playing time for Eugene Brown on Thursday. The 6-foot-6 second-year wing scored a career-high 12 points against Bowling Green, and his length and size might make him the perfect candidate to slow down Scruggs and company.

Three Important Musketeers

PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
Player Position Height Weight Stats
NATE JOHNSON G 6-4 192 4 PPG, 5 RPG
PAUL SCRUGGS G 6-5 198 20 PPG, 6 RPG
COLBY JONES G 6-6 207 17.5 PPG, 6.5 RPG
JEROME HUNTER F 6-8 210 6.5 PPG, 9 RPG
DIEONTE MILLS F 6-11 231 4.5 PPG, 5 RPG

Paul Scruggs

A five-year Xavier veteran and a top-40 prospect in the class of 2017, Scruggs has started every game he’s played in for the Musketeers in the last four years, and leads the team with an average of 20 points per game to start out the 2021-22 campaign.

A 6-foot-5, 198-pound combo guard, Scruggs was a second-team All-Big East selection last year, scoring 14 points per game and leading the conference with an average of 5.7 assists per contest. The Indianapolis native will be the first option for the Musketeer offense, and has no trouble making plays for teammates either.

"It's really unique in today's game when you have a player of that caliber going into his fifth year," Holtmann said. "So he's a fantastic player."

Colby Jones

Another big guard that could give the Buckeye backcourt some problems on defense is Colby Jones, listed at 6-foot-6, 207 pounds with an average of 17.5 points per game to start the season. Jones made the Big East All-Freshman team a year ago, averaging 7.7 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.9 assists for Xavier. This year, Jones has stepped into a bigger role, scoring 16 points in the season opener and putting up 19 against Kent State. Jones is just a 32.4% career 3-point shooter, but has gotten to the line seven times in both games to start the season for Xavier.

Jack Nunge

The Buckeyes will be plenty familiar with four-year Iowa veteran Jack Nunge, a skilled 7-footer that transferred out of the Hawkeye program this offseason to join the Musketeers. Nunge averaged career-highs with 7.1 points and 5.4 boards in just 15.9 minutes per game for Fran McCaffery a season ago, and he’s putting up nine points and five boards per night through the first two games at Xavier. Nunge hasn’t started for the Musketeers, but his size and length could be a factor against an Ohio State team that starts a 6-foot-8 forward at center.

"He's a really good player, really talented, can score inside and out," Holtmann said. "Great length, can rebound it, makes threes. He's gonna be a great asset for them."

How It Plays Out

Line: Ohio State -1, O/U 140.5

With as little as we truly know about what these teams could become over the next couple months, this game feels like a toss-up, and the odds reflect that. Both have struggled against mid-major opponents to open the season, but the Buckeyes have an extra game under their belt in which they notched an important blowout result to build the team's confidence. I'll take Ohio State in this one, but not by a wide margin.

Prediction: Ohio State 73, Xavier 70