Dec. 11 was the last time the No. 13 Ohio State men’s basketball team took the floor.
They dominated now-No. 24 Wisconsin 73-55, but almost immediately afterward the Buckeyes’ season was put on pause. COVID-19 hit the team. A three-week stretch has claimed three games, including a chance at No. 18 Kentucky. There remains plenty of doubt that Ohio State might miss a fourth consecutive game against Nebraska.
On Monday, Ohio State canceled its game against New Orleans. But on the same day, it also received news that may make a return to play easier. That evening, the CDC reduced the requirements for quarantine for both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals from 10 days to five.
An important caveat is that individuals who test positive for COVID-19 must remain asymptomatic to exit quarantine and should mask for five days afterward, according to the CDC. Players would be able to return early but may have to wear masks during the games, according to national college basketball analyst Jeff Goodman.
The evolution of college basketball COVID-19 policy didn’t end there.
On Tuesday, the Big Ten joined several other conferences in announcing a change in policy regarding COVID-19 forfeitures.
“If a team or teams is/are unable to participate in a scheduled Conference competition due to COVID-19, and as a result the competition is unable to occur on the calendar day on which it is scheduled, the competition will not automatically be considered a forfeiture,” the Big Ten’s statement read.
Everything is on the table for the conference. This includes rescheduling, no contests and the original policy of forfeiture if a team cannot play due to a COVID-19 outbreak.
On “Sports Nightly” Monday, Nebraska head coach Fred Hoiberg discussed the difficulties of making the return from a break.
“It’s always gonna be a little sloppy,” Hoiberg said. “Whether it was high school coming back, college certainly and even in the NBA after the All-Star break, that first practice is always a mess.”
For Nebraska, the return from winter break is normal. The Buckeyes, on the other hand, have not played in 22 days. In large part, Monday’s canceled contest occurred because it would have been Ohio State’s first practice after the pause, according to Hoiberg.
Despite all of that, the Buckeyes are ranked No. 13 in the AP Top 25 and, as of Thursday afternoon, are still set to make a trip to Lincoln on Sunday as Nebraska resumes Big Ten play.
Both teams entered the hiatus with momentum, although some of the energy from Ohio State’s victory over Wisconsin has subsided. The Huskers, meanwhile, brought a five-game skid that featured two 30-point defeats and a ton of soul-searching to an end with an 88-74 win over Kennesaw State on Dec. 22.
“I was very happy with the way we responded after a tough couple weeks,” Hoiberg said. “Had some good long film sessions, had an opportunity to get on the floor and practice and I thought carried over a lot of the things we had worked on.”
Hoiberg said he saw Nebraska get back to what had brought it success earlier this season. The Huskers had 20 assists against Kennesaw State, and ball movement was a difference maker. Yet Hoiberg laid an even bigger emphasis on the team’s better shot selection.
“We took much better shots, made 15 threes and made the right play,” Hoiberg said. “I thought overall, it was a very complete game by our guys.”
Hoiberg has touched on it all year: seeing the ball go through the hoop creates confidence in shooters. Nebraska’s 15-of-29 mark from behind the arc was its highest this season, the second time it had reached double-digit threes and a far cry from its 5-of-28 mark just a game earlier.
“It was certainly a sight for these sore eyes to see that ball going through the hoop,” Hoiberg said. “By our guys seeing it go in, hopefully that will get some confidence for them and carry over into conference season.”
The Huskers reopen conference play from the basement as one of four winless teams in the Big Ten. Their opponent sits atop the leaderboard with a 2-0 conference record along with Illinois and No. 10 Michigan State.
Buckeye junior forward EJ Liddell is one of the best players in the conference, averaging 20.6 points per game along with 7.2 rebounds. Liddell has also posted an astounding 30 blocked shots. Waiting in (or in some cases, on) the wings are sophomore forward Zed Key and senior forward sharpshooter Kyle Young.
Rebounding will again come to the forefront, especially considering the force of Liddell and Key. Ohio State as a team averages 8.6 offensive rebounds per game.
Hoiberg also mentioned the strong possibility of a lineup that features two Husker bigs in junior forward Derrick Walker and freshman forward Eduardo Andre to counter Key and Liddell.
“Liddell is one of the best players in the league and Zed Key has made a huge jump as far as going into his sophomore year,” Hoiberg said.
Hoiberg and the Huskers certainly sympathize with the Ohio State plight considering Nebraska’s 28-day layoff nearly a year ago.
“It was a crazy time to be a coach, coaching through that pandemic,” Hoiberg said. “I certainly hope we don’t have to go through that again.”
While there is less recent film on Ohio State than usual, Hoiberg said the Buckeye identity of interior dominance won’t change.
“Physicality is going to be the number one thing,” Hoiberg said. “They really try to punish you on the inside and on the glass.”
Nebraska’s keys sound like a broken record. Move the basketball, fight for each and every rebound and take good shots. If the Huskers can accomplish those things and take advantage of a potentially sluggish but rested Buckeye squad, the first Big Ten victory of the year and a .500 record just might be in reach.