The last two outings for the Ohio State hasn't been the stuff of championships that was expected of these basketball Buckeyes. Sure, losing on the road to Michigan was kind of expected, after how close the game was in Columbus (in the second half, anyway). Doing it in overtime stung, but possibly showed a sign of good to come for the squad, a sign that their heads could stay up before returning home to face #1 Indiana in the Schott.
Indiana is really good; there's no denying that, and they will likely head into the NCAA tournament as a #1 seed, maybe even as the top-seeded team in the country. After losing to Illinois a few days before, the Hoosiers were mad, and the brunt of their anger was felt by the Buckeyes, who were outmatched, outclassed and simply outplayed from the opening whistle.
Historically and statistically speaking, Ohio State shouldn't have lost the game - it hadn't lost consecutive games since dropping consecutive away games in 2009-2010 with Evan Turner on the bench. That's an impressive streak of 121 games that now falls by the wayside. It's a shame, but no streak lasts forever and this one was bound to end once the Big Ten caught up with the Buckeyes.
Are the Buckeyes reeling? Absolutely not. The losses are to two of the best teams in the country, two teams that will likely make deep runs in Marches from this year onward. The issue is this Buckeye team has fallen to ranked teams six times out of seven games against them so far, the lone win a home game against Michigan. And even that game was irritably close at the end.
Tonight, the Buckeyes face a team that is not great. They face a team that they routinely beat. They face a team forced to go deep in their lineup due to injury. Tonight, Ohio State welcomes Northwestern and, after 40 minutes, will welcome back its winning ways.
Northwestern is a football school now. Well, let's not go that far. Northwestern is an academic institution first and foremost (hence the banner image). They have a proud tradition in all things academic, ranking 12th in US News and World Report's national college rankings list. The next closest Big Ten school is Michigan, all the way at #29. So their academic bonafides are beyond reproach. They even claim themselves as Chicago's Big Ten Team, which is cute, in a "cool story, bro" kind of way. Darren Rovell is among their more famous sports related alumni, which all but speaks for itself.
A lot of people get more than a little heartburn when thinking about Northwestern basketball playing Ohio State. In the last few years, the Wildcats have often times given the Buckeyes some struggles. We all probably remember the one point scrappy win in the 2010-2011 regular season, which was followed by a six point OT survival a few weeks later in the Big Ten Tournament. Last year's Final Four squad had similar problems in Evanston, squeaking out a two point win before ultimately winning the conference.
A factor in all three of those close games is constant: game location. Both regular season squeakers were in that barn of an arena up North of Chicago that Northwestern calls home. And those Northwestern teams were much better than the team that coach Bill Carmody brings down to Columbus tonight. This year, Northwestern has been a riddle that many teams have solved, including city-mates University of Illinois Chicago. These Wildcats could have been a loss away from sitting at the bottom of the Chicago basketball scene, had any forward-thinking AD at DePaul decided to schedule Northwestern this year.
But this game is in the Schott, where Ohio State has been dominant against lesser teams and Michigan. In their 14 home wins, the Buckeyes are averaging 22 points better than their opponents (76-54). Granted, a lot of that comes from playing the likes of Albany, UMKC, and UNC-Asheville. But the fact remains, this team is stellar against middling teams and that's exactly what Northwestern is right now.
At full strength, maybe the Wildcats could give the Buckeyes a game. But they're far from full strength and two of their best players, Drew Crawford and Jared Swopshire, will be riding pine for the rest of the year, including tonight's battle. They will have little effect on the game on the glass, as noted in our preview, and will almost entirely depend on the three to even stay in the game. Ohio State can afford to have an off shooting night themselves, as their size advantage will probably pay dividends when attacking the basket against a smaller Northwestern side.
In short, the Wildcats are exactly the medicine the Buckeyes need right now. Matta and Aaron Craft and Deshaun Thomas will grouse about how their team is getting better and better. But the last two losses have not been fun, and have shown that Matta's squad has a bit further to go before we can call them contenders for anything, let alone a Big Ten, regional or national championship. Sometimes all it takes one win to rebuild confidence and set the stage for a big finish. Northwestern is just the team to provide that win.