The Ohio State men’s basketball team is in a precarious position as they prepare for Northwestern (6-4, 3-3) this evening. The No. 21 Buckeyes (9-3, 3-3) currently sit in a three-way tie for fifth place in the Big Ten, along with Purdue, Indiana, and these Wildcats. With a win, the Buckeyes claim sole possession of fifth place, pushing the other three down a notch. But with a loss, Ohio State would drop into a tie with Minnesota and Rutgers for ninth place.
With less than half of the conference schedule complete, the standing don’t mean all that much yet in the grand scheme of things. However, it does feel like Ohio State is at a crossroads. Are they one of the top teams in the conference, like when they pounded Nebraska by what seemed like 80 points and then swept Rutgers? Or are they a fringe-tournament team, like the version we saw when Ohio State got downright bullied by Minnesota?
On Wednesday evening, the basketball Buckeyes will have an opportunity to exact revenge on Northwestern, who edged them out 71-70 on Dec. 26 after Boo Buie knocked down a heartbreaking three-pointer with just under a minute left in the game. The Buckeyes played fairly well that day and dominated the glass, outrebounding Northwestern 40-26. Duane Washington Jr. had a great look at the basket in the closing seconds with a chance to win the game, but his layup bounced harmlessly off the backboard and caromed back down, securing Northwestern’s third conference victory of the season.
The problem for Northwestern? They haven’t won a game since.
Since beating the Buckeyes the day after Christmas, Northwestern has lost three-straight by 15, 19, and 25 points. Against Illinois last week, Northwestern led by 15 at halftime before getting outscored by 40 (!!) points in the second half, losing by a boatload when the final buzzer sounded.
Buie, who vanquished the Buckeyes on that fateful day, scored a combined total of two points over that three-game stretch. Just as a reference here, Buie is averaging 10.3 points per game this season and scored double-digits in each of the five games before Northwestern’s losing streak began. He has vanished.
The Wildcats were the darlings of the Big Ten in December, starting 3-0 in conference play and holding sole possession of first place for a moment. But things went south quickly. So quickly, in fact, Ken Pomeroy now gives Northwestern less than a 50% chance to win each of their remaining 14 games. While the Wildcats certainly won’t end the season on a 17-game losing streak, it’s going to be an uphill climb for these ‘Cats if they want to compete for a Big Ten title and an NCAA Tournament appearance. KenPom has Northwestern ranked No. 59, while he has the Buckeyes up at No. 17.
Ohio State, on the other hand, is fresh off of a 79-68 beatdown of Rutgers that wasn’t nearly as close as the final score would indicate. Ohio State led by as many as 22 points in the second half, with E.J. Liddell (15 points, six rebounds) providing the early juice and Justice Sueing (10 points, 12 rebounds, five assists) recording his first double-double as a Buckeye.
Ohio State will be without the services of CJ Walker — who missed the last game with torn ligaments in his right hand — and is out indefinitely. The guy who was expected to step up in his absence, Jimmy Sotos, will be a game-time decision according to head coach Chris Holtmann. Sotos injured himself diving for the ball late in Ohio State’s win over Rutgers and appeared to injure his shoulder. The team has not disclosed the nature of his injury, just that he is being evaluated on a day-to-day basis. Sotos had six points, four assists, three rebounds, and just one turnover against the Scarlet Knights.
He is the third guard to miss time this year for the Buckeyes in addition to Walker and Abel Porter, who transferred to Ohio State from Utah State this summer, but was forced to retire before the season began after being diagnosed with a rare heart disease — hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.
The hits Ohio State has taken to their backcourt aren’t debilitating, but it’s getting close. Relying on a shoot-first guard (Washington Jr.) and a kid who is still supposed to be in high school (Meechie Johnson Jr.) isn’t exactly a recipe for success in this year’s Big Ten. But against Northwestern, it may not matter all that much.
The Wildcats’ leading rebounder is 6-foot-10, 245-pound Ryan Young, who is a comparable size and weight to Kyle Young and Liddell. Both Kyle Young (14 points, eight rebounds) and Liddell (15 points, eight rebounds) outplayed Ryan Young in Ohio State’s first matchup with Northwestern, as he scored just eight points to go along with seven rebounds. Pete Nance — who stands tall at 6-foot-10 and 225 pounds— also spends some time down low, but both the aforementioned Buckeyes have weight on him and should feel comfortable maneuvering around in the post tonight.
Last time they played Northwestern, Ohio State went 4-of-20 from beyond the arc, while simultaneously converting 23 of their 41 two-point tries (56%). Translation: the Buckeyes found success taking the ball directly to the basket, while their 11 offensive rebounds helped create 17 second-chance points. In comparison, Northwestern pulled down four offensive boards, which created just two second-chance points.
To win this game, the Buckeyes need to attack the basket and lay off the 3-pointers. Ohio State is the third-worst team in the B1G from beyond the arc, ahead of only winless Nebraska and No. 23 Minnesota. With only two guards available, the offense won’t be pretty or smooth, so open looks on the perimeter won’t come often. Holtmann and the Ohio State coaching staff know that, and they know what did work against Northwestern. Kyle Young and Liddell worked. Make it work for 40 minutes, and it’s another OSU victory.
The Buckeyes are playing just their fifth home game of the year, and they’re undefeated (4-0) so far in Columbus. Even without fans, simply playing in your home gym and not needing to travel for the game gives the home squad a leg-up.
If both Walker and Sotos are out, look for the Buckeyes to shift Sueing or Musa Jallow over to the off-guard spot, while also sprinkling in Johnson for 10-15 minutes. Washington Jr. will run point, which should be an adventure all on its own.
With no true point guard on the court, look for Holtmann to focus the offense around the bruising tandem of Young and Liddell, much like they did last time. Despite being one of the smaller teams in the B1G, Ohio State is the fifth-best rebounding team and have pulled down the third-most offensive rebounds. The closer Ohio State stays to the basket, the more second-chances they’ll give themselves.
This one could be a doozy with literally no point guard present, but the Buckeyes should be able to grind Northwestern down for a close win at home.
ESPN BPI: Ohio State 78%
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