It’s not a hot streak, but at least it’s something. The Ohio State Buckeyes men’s basketball team has won two straight conference matchups after starting their Big Ten slate an abysmal 0-4. Now, the Buckeyes head home to face the Northwestern Wildcats, winners of their last three matchups.
The Buckeyes have shown something like a spark during the last two games in wins over Michigan State and Nebraska. Marc Loving’s easy layup on an inbound pass from C.J. Jackson with less than a second left seemed to be a long time coming. “About time something good happened for us,” said Thad Matta after the 67-66 victory in Lincoln Wednesday. With the win, the Buckeyes are now 12-7 on the season and 11th in the Big Ten.
Still, there is a lot of work for Ohio State to do if they hope to make the NCAA Tournament. Turnovers and free throws remain an issue, and the Buckeyes still seem to lack a single playmaker who they can look to in a pinch.
Northwestern, meanwhile, has had something of a miraculous season. The Wildcats are sitting at 15-4 on the season with a 4-2 conference record. Northwestern remains the only Division I school to have never made the NCAA Tournament in the nearly 80 years of its existence, and hope that this is the year to break the status quo.
The Wildcats haven’t played since last Sunday, when they crushed Iowa by 35 points in Evanston, handing the Hawkeyes their worst loss of the season in what was the largest margin of victory ever in 175 iterations of the matchup.
Now, Ohio State hopes to keep their momentum moving up against a team that they have traditionally trounced.
Numbers to know
Ohio State is bad enough at shooting free throws as it is. But Wednesday’s performance was, if possible, even worse than the usual as the Buckeyes hit under 44 percent from the line as they made just seven of their free throw attempts. Even in the second half, the Buckeyes went 0-for-5 from the charity stripe as they closed the gap on Nebraska. It was fortunate, perhaps, that Nebraska posted an almost-as-bad 55 percent from the line, missing nine of their attempts. On the season, Ohio State is 250th in the country with a 66.9 percent average from the stripe.
Currently, the Buckeyes have five players averaging in double figures on the season--Jae’Sean Tate (14.1), JaQuan Lyle (12.3), Marc Loving (11.4), Trevor Thompson (10.6) and Kam Williams (10.3). The good news is that the ball is being distributed well among the group of five. The bad news is that, especially with Thompson playing a starting role now in place of Micah Potter, the Buckeyes have very few points coming off the bench. Against Nebraska, center David Bell scored four and Potter added three for the Buckeyes’ seven-total bench points. As they enter the final stretch of the season, key bench players, including point guard C.J. Jackson and Potter, need to start contributing points in their limited minutes.
The Buckeyes have recorded 31-straight home wins versus the Wildcats, dating back to 1978. Ohio State has dominated the series with a 117-45 overall record over Northwestern, and Thad Matta has only lost once to the Wildcats. The Buckeyes were 2-0 against the squad last year, despite being down at halftime in both matchups, with a 65-56 win on the road and a 71-63 win at home. Last season, Northwestern went on to finish ninth in the Big Ten and lose in the second round of the conference tournament. This year, however, the tables have turned somewhat, as the Wildcats are currently fourth in the Big Ten standings.
Cast of characters
The sophomore point guard played 14 minutes and had zero points for the Buckeyes, but his impact was apparent beyond the stat line on the crucial inbound pass to Loving which set Ohio State up to win Wednesday. He has also been one of the leaders in bringing back the competitive spark to a team which often seemed to lack hustle this season: “The season is far from over so we’re just going to compete every day and try to win every game from this point on.”
But even as a scorer, Jackson has potential. He was a prolific three-point shooter in junior college, and while he has not found such a rhythm at Ohio State (he has shot under 20 percent from behind the arc thus far this season), it is something that could help to round out scoring for the Buckeyes.
The hero of Jackson’s pass had a team-high 15 points against the Huskers, though just four came in the second half. Loving has provided a much more emotional presence on the court the last two games even than he did earlier in the season. He recorded 12 points and seven rebounds against Michigan State, but he also brought more intensity to the team which showed on the stat line in the form of two charges--something that Marra and fans have been calling for from the only senior on the squad. Trevor Thompson praised Loving’s effort, saying that “Anybody who makes those extra-effort plays is always good for the team.” And he showed that he can clean up his play against Nebraska, recording zero turnovers despite averaging nearly three per game on the season.
The 6-foot-5, 210-pound guard from Hillside, Ill. has proven to be a matchup problem in the Big Ten already this season. Averaging a team-high 15.8 points on the year, Lindsey dropped 22 on Iowa last week in Northwestern’s rout of the Hawkeyes. Alongside fellow junior guard Bryant McIntosh, who himself is averaging 12.3 points per game, the Wildcats have a formidable backcourt--something that the Buckeyes have struggled with thus far in conference play, as they have allowed guards from Illinois (Malcolm Hill, 20), Minnesota (Amir Coffey, 19) and Wisconsin (Bronson Koenig, 22) to score significant points in three of their four conference losses.
After sitting out all of last season with a shoulder injury, the 6-foot-7 sophomore forward has proven to be an integral member of the resurgent Northwestern squad. Though Law is the Wildcats’ No. 2 scorer, averaging 14.2 points per game, his defensive prowess has been where he has shone this year. Law was a key part of holding Iowa’s Peter Jok--the Big Ten’s leading scorer--to just four points in Sunday’s matchup (Jok averages 21.6). From last season to this season, Northwestern’s adjusted defensive efficiency ranking has improved from 87 to 43, according to Ken Pom. And they are holding opponents to 38.4 percent from the field, putting them at 11th nationally in the category. Ohio State’s shooters will need to be aware of Law (and Lindsey) and be able to draw fouls in order to be effective down low.
How to watch
Game time: 1 p.m. ET
Radio: 97.1 WBNS-FM