It goes without saying that Ohio State hasn't gotten off to the start they wanted this season, and they're going to have to have a significant turnaround once Big Ten play starts if they want to put themselves in a position to compete for a postseason opportunity. In their previous big game opportunities, Ohio State at least kept things close, but they were outclassed for most of the game at UConn, and are now staring at an under .500 record.
Free throw shooting, defensive consistency and an occasionally cavalier attitude with the basketball have all been culprits, or in other news, all things that very young teams tend to struggle with. The Buckeyes get a chance to get back to .500 and grab what may very well be their best win of this young season tonight, when they take on the Northern Illinois Huskies, who are 7-1.
That record might be a little misleading, since NIU has beaten two teams that aren't DI, with their loss coming against a not-very-good Missouri team. But with a KenPom ranking of 168, NIU projects to be a better team than anybody else Ohio State has beaten. The Buckeyes will still be favored, and the matchup will give them a chance to try to correct some of their mistakes before their final big non-conference test against Kentucky, but if Ohio State plays poorly, NIU could make this a very unpleasant evening.
The Buckeyes have enjoyed some success against teams where they have a size advantage, and they'll have that again against NIU, who only has three players 6'7 or taller among the ten players who have played the most minutes for the team. That could mean that Ohio State's big men, like Trevor Thompson and Daniel Giddens, could have another big game. Thompson was huge against Air Force, and forced a not-very-great three point shooting team into lots of low percentage jump shots once the paint was closed off. Can the Buckeyes do that again tonight?
Numbers to know
Ohio State isn't a great three point shooting team at the moment. They're only shooting 33.7% from downtown, and two players they're counting on to score efficiently, Keita Bates-Driop and JaQuan Lyle, are shooting under 30%. They might have a chance to improve tonight, as NIU's opponents are shooting 39.5% from three against them, a defensive percentage that's near the bottom, nationwide. The Buckeyes are going to have a length advantage on the perimeter, and if they're able to share and move the basketball around, they could have some chances to shoot over and around NIU. If the Buckeyes can't convert opportunities here, it's fair to wonder how many better chances they'll get.
That's how many shots from the field JaQuan Lyle made against UConn, finishing 0-7 from the floor, including 0-4 from downtown. Ohio State may not necessarily need Lyle to be their primary scorer, especially if Loving or Tate are feeling it, but they can't afford to get absolutely no scoring from him. Lyle's not a great jump shooter right now, but he should be able to use his size and strength advantages to get more opportunities at the basket, and help get his confidence back. Look for Ohio State to call Lyle's number a few times tonight to make sure that there isn't another zero at the end of his box score.
Cast of characters
There isn't a ton to get excited about right now for Ohio State, but the early returns on Giddens have been very promising, and not just because Ohio State has struggled to get good frontcourt production in recent years. Giddens' free throw shooting right now is horrendous (28.6%), but everything else about his game right now has been positive, from his defensive tenacity and nose for blocking shots, to his ability to get offensive rebounds. Giddens is still growing, but there's a chance here to really make his mark against an overall smaller team. If Giddens can help get some of NIU's bigs in foul trouble, he'll really open up the paint for his teammates. Look for him to have another solid game.
At the end of the day, the game is about buckets, and it would help the Buckeyes if Bates-Diop could find a way to get a few more. The true sophomore averages the second most minutes per game on the team, and has improved as a defender, but his shot making has been a little up and down this year, especially from deep. After hitting double figures in every game this year, Bates-Diop has failed to reach that mark for two games in a row. Look for him to try and regain some of his confidence today, and beat his 11.7 per game scoring average. Marc Loving may be Ohio State's primary scorer, but Bates-Diop needs to be a dependable second banana for this team to reach its potential.
NIU doesn't exactly have an alpha dog scorer, but Armstead does a lot of things to lead the Huskies. The team's leading scorer at 12.6 a game, the 6'5 guard also pulls down 5.6 rebounds, and is one of their highest usage players. He's not somebody who is going to shoot the ball 25 times, but he can get to the basket and get to the free throw line, where he's shooting 67%.
NIU may not be a big team across their roster, but that doesn't mean they are totally bereft of size. Sophomore big man Marin Maric, of Croatia, is the team's leading rebounder at 7.8 a game, and will need to have a big game, and stay on the court, for the Huskies to pull the upset. Maric can shoot free throws, take high percentage shots, compete for offensive rebounds, and alter a few of his own. Finding a way to get him off the court and off the glass will go a long way towards ensuring a Buckeye victory.
How to watch
Game time: 7 p.m. ET
Radio: 97.1 FM