The Ohio State Buckeyes men’s basketball team may have broken its four-game losing streak when the squad took on Nebraska Jan. 14, but that win seemed to be an outlier as Chris Holtmann’s team once again finds itself losers of two straight games. In a tough week, the Buckeyes got slaughtered by Penn State Saturday and then fell in heartbreaking fashion to Minnesota 62-59 Thursday.
However, it’s a new week ahead for Ohio State, and if ever there was a winnable game for Chris Holtmann’s team, it would seem to be coming today as the Buckeyes head to Evanston to face a struggling Northwestern squad at 6:30 p.m. in Welsh-Ryan Arena.
The loss to Minnesota was the sixth defeat in the last seven games for the Buckeyes. Even more frustrating is the fact it was the second loss to the Gophers this season, with the Buckeyes falling in a crushing defeat at home. Eight games into Big Ten play, and with just two wins to show for it, Ohio State has all but lost its early-season mojo which was on full display when the Buckeyes overcame Villanova, North Carolina and Kentucky in succession, nearly rising to the No. 1 ranking in the country.
In the matchup against the Gophers, junior forward Kyle Young led the Buckeyes with 14 points on 5-of-8 shooting. Sophomore guard Duane Washington Jr. added 12 off the bench while fellow junior guard C.J. Walker poured in 11. Junior forward Kaleb Wesson, meanwhile, had his worst shooting day of the season. In fact, both of the Wessons struggled immensely when it came to scoring against the Gophers. Kaleb, despite an outstanding defensive performance which featured a team-high 14 rebounds, was held to a mere two points and connected on a single field goal all game. Andre, meanwhile, had just six points.
After a brief suspension, the reasons for which were never made public, Washington and fellow sophomore guard Luther Muhammed. returned to the lineup against Penn State and seemed to be back to their usual roles against the Gophers, though Muhammed was held to four points in 23 minutes.
One particularly heartbreaking aspect of the loss to Minnesota was the fact Ohio State seemed to be on track in the first half, heading into the break up by nine even as the Wessons struggled to connect on their shots. However, shooting turned ice cold in the second half with the Buckeyes connecting on just 37% from the field. Even with their struggles, though, Ohio State had a chance to win late, but Kaleb Wesson was unable to connect on an open three-pointer that would have put the Buckeyes up three with 19 seconds left in the game.
Now, after this narrow loss at home, Ohio State must once again hit the road as the Buckeyes prepare to meet Northwestern. The Buckeyes have certainly struggled away from the Schott since the start of conference play. In fact, Ohio State is 0-4 in four true road games in the Big Ten thus far this season. However, those challenges are not unique to the Buckeyes. In fact, road games in the Big Ten this season have seemed all-but impossible for the visiting team to win, with a 11-48 record so far this year for visitors.
The Wildcats, meanwhile, are losers of three-straight, and are sitting at 6-12 overall and 1-7 in the Big Ten. In fact, if it’s a reason for optimism, Northwestern is the sole team in the conference with a worse record than Ohio State, having lost eight out of its last nine games.
Northwestern’s’ only Big Ten win came against Nebraska in a defensively-dominant 62-57 victory. While there are few data points for the Wildcats’ overall success, that win did come at home, which further underlines the challenge for the Buckeyes to break their cycle of road struggles.
In their most recent matchup, the Wildcats fell to No. 17 Maryland 77-66 Tuesday in Evanston. Senior guard Pat Spencer led Northwestern in scoring with 17 points on the day, while freshman forward Miller Kopp added 16 of his own. Overall, the Wildcats shot an impressive 50% from the field, connecting on 7-of-16 three-point attempts while holding the Terps to 32% shooting.
While Northwestern didn’t pull out a win against Maryland, the Wildcats still boasted one of their best starts in the first half against the Terps, and even held a 14-point lead at the half. However, they once again struggled down the stretch and couldn’t contain a resurgent Maryland team to secure the win at home.
The Wildcats are led on the sidelines by Chris Collins, who has been head coach in Evanston since 2013. While Collins’ teams have never finished higher than fifth in the Big Ten, he’s already a historic figure in Northwestern basketball lore, having led the Wildcats to their first NCAA Tournament appearance ever following the 2016-17 season. Overall, Collins, who played his college ball at Duke, has amassed a 107-108 record, including a 41-78 mark in the Big Ten.
On the court, Kopp has emerged as a leader for the Wildcats, averaging 13.3 points per game on 42% shooting. Kopp is also third in the Big Ten in three-point shooting, connecting on greater than 40% of his shots from range. Kopp is joined by Spencer, one of the few veterans on the young team, who is averaging 11 points per game and a 1.4 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Overall, Northwestern has the No. 13 scoring offense in the Big Ten, averaging just 66.7 points per game. The Wildcats have also struggled with rebounds, pulling down just eight offensive rebounds per game (worst in the Big Ten) and posting a rebound margin of -1.3 (13th in the conference). However, as one might expect from a smart team like Northwestern, the Wildcats don’t make a lot of mistakes. Northwestern is 13th in the NCAA in turnovers per game with just 10.9, and have an overall assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.3. Additionally, the Wildcats are solid from the free throw line, connecting on nearly 76% of their attempts, good for second in the conference.
ESPN BPI: Ohio State 80.5%
The story of Northwestern basketball this season has not been a positive one by any stretch, but the good news for the Wildcats lies in the fact that their team is a young one whose talent is expected to continue to grow not only during the rest of this year but for seasons to come. Additionally, Northwestern has played its opponents close, falling to both Indiana and a ranked Illinois team on the road by just four points apiece. However, that emergent threat by the Wildcats does not appear imminent — at least for today’s matchup.
Then again, the Buckeyes have struggled immensely in January. While the season is not lost by any stretch, at some point, Chris Holtmann’s squad has to turn things around if they have hope of making the NCAA Tournament. And what better time to start that comeback than against the last-place team in the conference?