OSU, Sullinger present toughest test yet at Barn

No. 6 Ohio State is coming off its worst defeat of the Big Ten season, a 58-48 loss to Michigan State.

Minnesota guard Andre Hollins during Thursday night's game against Wisconsin at Williams Arena. Minnesota lost 68-61.

Marisa Wojcik

Minnesota guard Andre Hollins during Thursday night’s game against Wisconsin at Williams Arena. Minnesota lost 68-61.

Charlie Armitz

Minnesota was always going to be the underdog against Ohio State.

Yet three months ago, there was a healthy amount of intrigue surrounding the Gophers’ match-up with the No. 6 Buckeyes on Tuesday — the teams’ only meeting in 2011-12.

It was supposed to be a clash of titans — a fierce physical battle between two of the nation’s best power forwards, Trevor Mbakwe and Jared Sullinger.

Now, Sullinger and the conference-leading Buckeyes (9-3 Big Ten) are set to face a Minnesota team that has lacked a physical presence since Mbakwe ended his season with an ACL tear Nov. 27.

Containing the 6-foot-9, 280-pound Sullinger will have to be a team effort, said Gophers head coach Tubby Smith.

“We’ve got to have some help,” Smith said. “We can’t guard that kid one-on-one. He’s a great player.”

Team basketball hasn’t been the Gophers’ forte without Mbakwe, yet Minnesota (5-7) has managed to stay afloat in conference thanks to a series of strong individual efforts.

The latest standout performance came from freshman Andre Hollins, who scored a career-high 20 points in Minnesota’s overtime loss to Wisconsin on Sunday.

“I’ve gone through my spell where it was just tough — practice was tough, playing was tough, and that ankle injury compounded everything,” said Hollins, who has battled a tender ankle for most of the season. “I think I’ve persevered well. I’m going in the right direction, and we’re going in the right direction.”

Prior to Hollins’ emergence, it was another freshman — Joe Coleman — that had helped propel Minnesota back into the Big Ten race after an 0-4 start.

Coleman scored 81 points during a mid-season stretch in which Minnesota won four of six games. He has been held scoreless in the three games since then — two losses and one win.

Smith said Monday that Hollins might start Tuesday, which could force Coleman out of the lineup.

Minnesota has relied heavily on its underclassmen during Big Ten play while junior Rodney Williams and senior Ralph Sampson III have struggled to find their games.

Ohio State has found success in its young core as well. The Buckeyes have just three upperclassmen on their roster, and four of their five starters are sophomores, but they have dominated the Big Ten for most of the season.

Sullinger has led the way with 17.4 points and 9.3 rebounds per game. The sophomore center ranks in the top 10 in conference in points, rebounds, field-goal percentage and steals.

Yet Sullinger had one of his worst games in Ohio State’s last game, committing 10 turnovers and shooting 5-for-15 in a 58-48 loss to Michigan State.

“He had a tough game the other night, but we know he’s better than that,” Smith said. “We know we’ve got to do everything possible … to get the ball out of his hands.”

The loss to Michigan State ended the Buckeyes’ 39-game home winning streak that dated back to February 2010.

Prior to that loss, Ohio State had won six straight games, including four by 15 points or more.

Minnesota, meanwhile, has won its last two games following losses, but it hasn’t defeated Ohio State since January 2010.

“We’re a team that’s coming off a tough loss, and they’ve come off a tough loss also,” Smith said. “It’s a matter of which team can overcome those challenges and play their best basketball.”