As winter starts to announce itself weather wise, that can only mean that college basketball conference play is ramping up. For the Ohio State hoops team, one of their most important games takes place today.
As the Buckeyes (9-3, 3-1) come off their worst loss of the season to Indiana in Assembly Hall, they will return home to take on the Northwestern Wildcats (8-4, 1-2) and look to bounce back from a game where seemingly nothing went right.
The Buckeyes lost to the Hoosiers on Thursday night 67-51, snapping a five game winning streak and marking their first loss of the new year.
Ohio State was cruising into mid-December and then were put on pause for three weeks due to COVID-19 within the program. After the pause and only three full practices in three weeks, it took a remarkable comeback to defeat the worst team in the conference in Nebraska and then the 16 point loss to Indiana.
This is not a coincidence that the Buckeyes were rolling before the pause and struggling after. It will take them some time to get their legs back underneath them and conditioning up. This is their third game back, so they should start to show signs of normal again.
Northwestern is tough to figure out and when it comes to contenders and pretenders, they don’t fall in either category right now. They are on a two game losing streak, falling at home to Michigan State 73-67 and at home to Penn State 74-70. Northwestern started their season 8-2 but there best wins are a struggling Maryland team and 5-10 and last place in the SEC Georgia.
They have a brutal start to conference play and so far, they are 0-2 in that stretch. After this game against the Buckeyes, the Wildcats play Maryland, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Purdue. This is a stretch where they can bump their NCAA tournament resume up or completely play themselves out of it.
Northwestern is led by a talented trio of Boo Buie, Chase Audige and Pete Nance. Audige is recently returning from injury and just getting his legs back underneath him, but is averaging 10.2 points per game and 4.8 rebounds per game in his five games since returning. Nance leads the way for the Wildcats, averaging 15.9 points per game and 7.3 rebounds per game while shooting 42.9 percent from three-point range and 77 percent from the free throw line.
Buie is close behind Nance, averaging 15.3 points per game and 5.8 assists per game. Having a trio as talented as this is key in the Big Ten, but the issue for Northwestern has been their depth this season. Ryan Young is averaging 10 points per game but only on 16 minutes per game and he comes off the bench. Ty Berry is fifth on the team, averaging 8.3 points per game and no one else on the roster averages over 6.5 points per game.
For Ohio State, they are still led by E.J. Liddell, because two shaky games does not take away from everything he has already done this season. Liddell is averaging 18.9 points per game and 7.4 rebounds per game. Malaki Branham is on a two game stretch of solid scoring and Zed Key should be able to take advantage of the Wildcats in the paint. Liddell is just 5-for-26 from the field over his last two games, so he needs an efficient game to get him back on track.
Justice Sueing and Seth Towns are getting closer to ready to play, but it does not seem like they are quite there yet. However, anything is possible until the availability report comes out before the game.
Turnovers can be a key in this one, as the Wildcats have the fifth best turnover rate in the country, while Ohio State has turned the ball over at a higher rate than ideal recently. Jamari Wheeler is the reliable hand for the Buckeyes and they will need him to be just that against Buie and Audige, both who are good at swiping guys pockets.
The Buckeyes are shooting almost 39 percent as a team from three-point range this season and need to find open shots for guys like Branham, Wheeler and Justin Ahrens to string together fast points. Also, they can rattle the Wildcats by forcing some turnovers early on in this contest.
As I mentioned above, this is an important game for the Buckeyes. Conference losses are going to happen and like anything, in moderation, are not a big deal. The main thing that teams have to avoid in conference play is stacking up losses on top of each other and having winless weeks. Winning in Assembly Hall is difficult and the Buckeyes did not have their best night, which happens. Now, they get a Northwestern team on a two game losing streak at home. A game that can flip the script in either way.
Ohio State has won their last six home games and are averaging a blistering 78.2 points per game. They have also already beaten solid teams like Wisconsin and Duke at home. They have played their last two games on the road and their next two games are on the road as well, so winning this one at home is as close to a must win in January as they are going to have.
Ohio State has struggled since their return from COVID-19 and maybe a home game against a struggling conference opponent is just what the doctor ordered. Losing by 16 points and only scoring 51 points is not great, but one game is one game. If the Buckeyes fall to Northwestern at home, that is when the concerns will start to mount. I don’t think this will happen and I think the Buckeyes bounce back with a fairly comfortable victory for their 10th win of the season.