Daniel Chi / Asst. photo editor
The Big Ten is expected to be one of the toughest conferences in college basketball this season, but the Ohio State men’s basketball team made winning a league game look easy in its conference opener.
In their Big Ten opener, the No. 8-ranked Buckeyes overwhelmed unranked Nebraska, 70-44, Wednesday at the Schottenstein Center.
Granted, most expect Nebraska to finish toward the bottom of the Big Ten standings, and OSU will almost undoubtedly have tougher tests in the near future. But in a league that features five teams ranked in the Associated Press poll’s top 11, starting conference play with a blowout win is invaluable for the Buckeyes.
“That was a fun game,” junior point guard Aaron Craft said. “Getting into the Big Ten, being able to get a win and being 1-0 is huge.”
Wednesday also marked the second career start for center Amir Williams. The sophomore made his debut as an OSU starter on Dec. 29 against Chicago State, and OSU coach Thad Matta, evidently, thought he did enough to keep the job.
At times Williams faltered against Nebraska. He whiffed on the opening tip, missed an occasional assignment on defense and air-balled a shot in the post. But the 6-foot-11 Williams is OSU’s largest big man, and has potential to be a game changer defensively.
Against Nebraska he was just that, blocking four shots and altering many more. He also scored eight points – a career-high – and pulled down seven rebounds.
“Coach Matta wants me to be a force around the basket,” Williams said. “I think I did a good job around the basket today.”
Offensively, Deshaun Thomas outscored the Cornhuskers in the first half, 18-17, and finished with a 22-point performance. OSU junior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. also chipped in with five 3-pointers and 17 points.
Matta seemed most enthused about the contribution from Craft, who didn’t score a single point. The junior guard harassed Nebraska defensively and tallied 8 assists and 6 rebounds, both season bests.
“I though Aaron (Craft) was tremendous,” Matta said. “He did a couple of things that no one would even be able to pick up on. There were elements of scouting that were touched on (in practice) and his ability to see it and react to it as quick as he does is amazing.”
Craft recorded three steals against Nebraska, giving him 193 for his career, enough to pass David Lighty (192) as No. 2 on OSU’s all-time list. Craft needs 205 steals to become OSU’s all-time steals leader.
OSU is scheduled to hit the road next for a Big Ten matchup with No. 11 Illinois, which lost its opener to unranked Purdue, 68-61, at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Ind., Wednesday.
The Buckeyes are set to play the Illini Saturday at 2:15 p.m. at Assembly Hall in Champaign, Ill.