Northwestern knew that it would be tough to break their NCAA tournament drought this season, with the Big Ten being stacked and with the Wildcats having to replace John Shurna. With a promising recruiting class and returning gunner Drew Crawford, Northwestern certainly thought they were good enough to play spoiler, especially after early wins against Illinois State and Baylor.
Then Crawford went down for the season to injury, other nagging injuries began to pile up, the Wildcats began to pick up questionable losses (at home against Illinois-Chicago, a road game at Nebraska), and suddenly Northwestern is looking at another NIT-caliber season, and that's only if they win a few more games down the stretch. They have consistently been able to play the Buckeyes tough though, and this matchup is no different.
With Crawford out, 6-4 senior Reggie Hearn has assumed leading scoring responsibilities, at 14.2 ppg. He averages 35% on nearly 4 three point attempts a game, but can also get to the free throw line if he has to. Hearn has hit double figures in all but three B1G games that he's played, and when he's efficient, the team has been able to perform well. He is prone to 2-11 kind of nights though, and the Wildcats have struggled to score when he can't.
6-1 Sophomore Dave Sobolewski joins Hearn in the backcourt, and is second on the team with 11 ppg, while leading the team at 4.2 assists. Sobolewski does a good job taking care of the basketball (better than a 2:1 assists to turnover ratio), grabs a steal a game, and is a capable three point shooter at 38%. He's a surprisingly bad free throw shooter though at only 57%, and would probably operate better as a lower usage option on offense. If he isn't bombing from three, Ohio State is probably comfortable with him taking lots of shots.
Seven foot freshman Alex Olah (6.1 ppg, 4.0 rpg) will miss the game thanks to a concussion, leaving more responsibility to Northwestern's already small frontcourt. 6-8 senior Jared Swopshire had been the primary big man, but Northwestern just announced he will be out for the rest of the season with an injury. He's 3rd on the team at 9.7ppg, and led the Wildcats with 6.7 rebounds per game.
Freshman Kale Abrahamson (6-7, 4.3 ppg, 1.5 rpg) and Mike Turner (1.8 ppg) may also see playing time against the Buckeyes, although both are green enough that they shouldn't be looked to provide a significant impact, other than providing fouls.
Like with many recent Wildcats teams, Northwestern is small and is going to struggle rebounding. The team is 285th nationwide in team rebounding, and is near the bottom of the conference in most significant offensive catagories, from FG % (9th) to total scoring (10th), offensive rebounds (11th) even free throw percentage (10th). The Wildcats are only 8th in blocks and steals per game, and have lost three out of their last four games by double digits, a streak that includes losses to Iowa and Nebraska. The Wildcats are certainly not entering this game with momentum.
Given how other small teams have faced against Ohio State this year, the Wildcats will have to play a nearly flawless game, while hoping that Ohio State overlooks them like they did with road games against Nebraska and Penn State. The later is probably more likely than the former. After Reggie Hearn's 4.5 boards a game, the Wildcats won't have a single player averaging 3 or more rebounds when they face the Buckeyes. Ohio State should be able to turn a significant rebounding advantage and tough on the ball defense to limit the Wildcats to a single, contested shot opportunity, and get out in transition.
The Buckeyes are famously ill-equipped for a high scoring offensive slugfest, but it would appear the Wildcats are even less so. If the Buckeyes can push the pace even a little and hit the glass, and Northwestern doesn't go bonkers from three, Ohio State should be able to grab a win.
Holy Diver: Look for Deshaun Thomas to grab another 20 points, and for Ross, Thompson and Smith Jr to battle it out for 2nd scorer duties. Amir Williams gets another 3 blocks and the Buckeyes eventually open up a commanding lead at home to win, 72-58.