Ohio State and Northwestern first played this year two weeks ago, on Valentine's Day. Northwestern was playing in Columbus, a place they hadn't won since the Carter administration, and was playing without not just their best all-around player in Drew Crawford, but big men Jared Swopshire and Alex Olah. In fact, Northwestern was down to just 7 scholarship players. Like most Buckeye fans, I figured this was going to be a rout, and that I'd be able to sort of turn my brain off halfway through the second half and think of ways to make up to my wife the fact that I was watching a freaking Northwestern basketball game on Valentine's Day.
Northwestern refused to play along with my script. They led by 6 points in the second half, played Ohio State tough down to the very last few minutes and lost a much closer-than-the-score-indicated 69-59 game, one that I legitimately thought Ohio State would lose with around 8 minutes left in the game. Now, the Wildcats get Olah back and face the Buckeyes in Evanston, a venue that has not been especially kind to Ohio State as of late.
Take last year for example. The Buckeyes made the Final Four, and took a 23-6 record against a decidedly "meh" Wildcat squad. The Buckeyes were fortunate to escape with a 75-73 victory. The year before, with a 22-0 Ohio State team that might have been the best in recent memory, Ohio State was even luckier, winning in Evanston, 58-57. The 2008-09 squad actually lost, 72-69. That means in their last three trips, Ohio State is 2-1 and is dead even, points-wise, even though they've been the better team (and usually substantially so) in all of those matchups. Northwestern's home basketball crowds are sometimes less intimidating than the high school gym at Whitney Young, home of a certain Sam Thompson, but you better believe the joint will be jumping when Ohio State comes to town.
Don't get me wrong. Northwestern is not a great basketball team even with Drew Crawford, and without him, they're not even an NIT-caliber squad. Northwestern lost to Illinois-Chicago early in the season, and that wasn't a fluke. The Wildcats are a terrible rebounding team, are not especially efficient on offense, have a difficult time manufacturing points in the paint, and foul too much.
Furthermore, these teams are heading in *very* different directions. Since their near-victory in Columbus, Northwestern has played Illinois, Wisconsin and Purdue. They not only lost all three of those games, but they got, as the kids say, BLOWED OUT, including an embarrassing 74-43 butt-kicking at Purdue. Ohio State, meanwhile, just picked up two huge victories against Michigan State and Minnesota to solidify their NCAA seeding.
That doesn't mean Northwestern can't give Ohio State another run for their money, or even beat them. For starters, Ohio State isn't a particularly great road team. Their best RPI true road win this season was against Nebraska, and they let both an inferior Cornhusker and Penn State squad hang around late. With a motivated crowd, Northwestern will certainly have the emotional energy they need to play the Buckeyes tough.
Northwestern was able to ride a combination of three-point shooting, transition baskets and smart ball movement to hang around with Ohio State in the first meeting. The Wildcats shot 50% from three in the first half, finished 11-of-26, and had more assists and fewer turnovers than the Buckeyes. Tre Demps was particularly deadly, going 4-of-6 en route to his team-leading 16 points. Ohio State's Deshaun Thomas was also uncharacteristically cold shooting, going 6-of-17 from the field. As has been the case all season, if Thomas cannot get going, Ohio State will struggle to put up points, and anybody will be able to hang around. It will be imperative that Thomas assert himself in this game.
Ohio State was able to kill Northwestern on the glass, and at the foul line, and while the addition of 7-footer Olah should help Northwestern, don't expect that margin to close significantly. Ohio State enjoyed a 37-16 total rebounding advantage, including a staggering 16-4 advantage on the offensive glass. That will have to be the strategy for Ohio State again, to assert themselves physically down low, and look to get to the basket. The Wildcats do not have the depth, especially in the frontcourt, if anybody gets into significant foul trouble, and they do not have the personnel to keep Ohio State off the glass. Look for Amir Williams and Evan Ravenel to be a significant part of the offense, especially in the first few minutes of each half.
It can be attractive for fans to look past this game with Indiana and Illinois still ahead, but Ohio State cannot afford to drop this game if they want to keep a top 4 seed. The Wildcats really have nothing to lose, since they probably aren't making the NIT either way, and in front of a home crowd, that's dangerous, as Michigan will certainly attest to. If Northwestern is able to make difficult shots and take care of the basketball at the same clip they did during the first meeting, they can absolutely steal a big win. Northwestern has played pretty terrible basketball recently though, and Ohio State is defending the perimeter much better over their last two games. Combined with OSU's size advantage, and the Thomas factor, and Ohio State should still be comfortably favored to find a way to win.
Holy Diver. Northwestern will hit some big shots and play with a lot of energy and heart, but Ohio State will physically wear down the Wildcats and open this game up a little late. I like the Buckeyes, 65-54.