5 things to know about Ohio State’s NCAA Tournament opener against Loyola

The second day of the 2022 NCAA Tournament will start with Ohio State taking on Loyola-Chicago in a first-round game in Pittsburgh

The seventh-seeded Buckeyes say they see some familiar things in the 10th-seeded Ramblers, but coach Chris Holtmann’s team is more worried about itself after finishing the season losing four of five games.

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Here are five things to know about the game:

1. Holtmann said the Buckeyes are “getting healthier” but did not have an update on Zed Key or Kyle Young.

Ohio State’s top center and power forward were sidelined at the end of the season by injury, and the Buckeyes missed their combined 16.3 points and 10.3 rebounds.

Holtmann said Wednesday that Key (ankle) and Young (concussion protocol) have been able to take part in some parts of practice but not all of it, and they will be game-time decisions Friday.

“I think the indication is those guys are doing everything they can to get back, and hopefully they will get cleared,” Holtmann said. “We’ll see what our roster is on game day. I just don’t know right now, but our guys understand we’ve had a season unlike any others with injury so it is next man up, and the next man needs to be ready to play and perform at a high level.”

Reserve point guard Meechie Johnson is fine after missing the last game with an ankle issue.

2. Loyola shares some traits with a typical Big Ten team.

“Yeah you could say that definitely,” said Justin Ahrens, a senior wing from Versailles. “They’re a tough team that competes every possession. They guard and they’re active on defense. They get steals. And they make you guard for a while, so it will be very much a Big Ten-like game. I think that plays into our hands because we’ve been playing Big Ten games all year.

His coach agreed.

“I think they’re older than maybe most Big Ten teams, but they’re strong and they’re physical,” Holtmann said. “Really, really good defensively, and just their style of play. I think they’re the most physical team we’ll have played all year.”

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3. Holtmann said Loyola hangs its hat on defense, but the Ramblers’ offense should not be overlooked.

Loyola is 24th nationally in KenPom.com efficiency rankings, seven spots higher than Ohio State.

The Ramblers are 41st on offense and No. 22 defensively while the Buckeyes are an offense-first team, rankings 13th with the ball and 130th when trying to stop people.

“They’ve got tremendous shooting across the board and great skill,” Holtmann said. “They’ve got a really versatile team, so obviously our ability to defend them both in transition and half court is really important.”

Their best player, senior guard Lucas Williamson, is a force on both ends of the floor. He averaged 16.8 points and 6.8 rebounds per game in Missouri Valley Conference play and was named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year.

Last season when Loyola knocked out No. 1 seed Illinois in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, Williamson was credited with holding All-American guard Ayo Dosunmu to nine points.

4. Ohio State is looking for more scoring balance after leaning heavily on E.J. Liddell and Malaki Branham late in the season.

Liddell ranked fourth in the Big Ten with a scoring average of 19.6 points per game while Branham was 20th at 13.3.

Liddell has been a focal point all season after making the All-Big Ten first team, but Branham’s role has grown throughout the year as the freshman got acclimated to the college game.

“I do think we became a little bit too reliant on those two guys and it was tough for Malaki because they were really physical with him,” Holtmann said. “That’s tough to ask a freshman to do, so I think we need to be across the board a little bit more balanced offensively. I think it’s too much especially to expect that against a caliber of defense we’re going to see on Friday.”

5. Branham says he is not thinking about his future until the Buckeyes have played their last game of the season.

The 6-foot-5 guard from Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary’s was a top 40 national recruit but not viewed as one-and-done to the NBA candidate until late in the season when he went on a scoring spree.

That does not mean he is certain to leave, of course, but he kept his cards close this week.

“I’m just thinking about winning,” he said. “When the season is over — whenever that is, hopefully the first week of April — (I’ll think about it). I’m just not thinking about that right now.”

FRIDAY’S GAME

Ohio State vs. Loyola, 12:15 p.m., CBS, 1410

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