New year, new Buckeyes. The Ohio State Buckeyes men’s basketball team is jumping into 2023 with their second Big Ten matchup of the season against Northwestern this evening.
The Buckeyes have their first true road game of the season tonight since they fell to Duke in Durham to close out November. The squad has a quick turnaround since facing Alabama A&M to wrap up the 2022 slate Thursday.
Ohio State emerged with a 90-59 win over its final non-conference foe of the season to improve to 9-3 on the season, but the game was not always that one-sided. The Buckeyes went into halftime up just 36-33 over the Bulldogs. In fact, Ohio State didn’t lead by more than seven during the opening half.
Fortunately, freshman forward Brice Sensabaugh, who’s won two-straight Big Ten freshman of the week honors, was an anchor for the Buckeyes with a team-high 21 points on the day. It was Sensabaugh’s third-straight game leading Ohio State in scoring. Senior forward Justice Sueing added 18 points while freshman guard Bruce Thorton had a dozen.
A true team effort, 12 players scored for Ohio State as fresh faces returned to the lineup, including junior guard Gene Brown and senior guard Isaac Likekele. Brown had missed the first part of the season with a concussion while Likekele was out due to personal reasons. It was the first time all thirteen scholarship players on the roster were available this season.
The Buckeyes finished the game shooting 52.5% from the field. After making just 2-of-12 three-point attempts in the first half, Ohio State surged in the second half, righting the ship from range and making 7-of-13. The Buckeyes outrebounded Alabama A&M 42-30 and had 10 turnovers to the Bulldogs’ 17. Unfortunately, Ohio State continued to struggle from the free throw line, connecting on just 17-of-29 attempts.
The performance against the Bulldogs was the tuneup the Buckeyes needed before heading into the meat of conference play — and on the road, no less. Now, Ohio State looks to take those learnings to Welsh-Ryan Arena this evening to face a surging Northwestern squad.
The Buckeyes’ opponent for this afternoon might not spark fear in your hearts by reputation (the Wildcats famously made the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 2017 and haven’t won a Big Ten title since 1933), but Northwestern is riding a five-game win streak and is one of the top defensive squads in the country. And according to KenPom, the Wildcats are ranked as the No. 45 team in the nation.
This season, the Wildcats are off to a hot start, especially by Northwestern basketball standards. The smallest Big Ten school already has big wins on its resume with 10 wins on the schedule so far. Notably, the Wildcats had a 15-16-overall record last season, so those 10 wins are really impressive. It’s their best start since the 2016-17 season that saw their NCAA Tournament berth.
The Wildcats, like Ohio State, are 1-0 in conference play so far this season with a W over Michigan State on the road (the Spartans were also ranked No. 20 at the time).
The claim to fame for this Wildcat squad has been its strong defensive play to open the season. Northwestern has the No. 7 scoring defense in Division I, allowing less than 56 points per game. The Wildcats are also second in the Big Ten in steals per game with 8.6 and turnover margin (+4.2). Coincidentally, all those stats put them directly behind Rutgers, who is Ohio State’s sole conference win thus far this season. One area Northwestern leads the conference in is field goal defense, with the Wildcats holding opponents under 35% shooting.
Most recently, Northwestern pulled out a 63-58 win over Brown. The Wildcats shot just 34.5% from the field (and an abysmal 19% from three-point range), but who needs offense when you have great defense? Northwestern outrebounded the Bears 38-31 and recorded nine steals on the afternoon. The Wildcats also shot 90.5% from the free-throw line.
Leading the way in scoring for Northwestern was senior guard Chase Audige, who had an impressive 24 points against the Bears. Fellow senior guard Boo Buie added 15 while junior guard Ty Berry had 12. The starting lineup anchored the Wildcats, who had just four points off the bench and just eight players seeing time on the court.
Audige leads the Wildcats in scoring this season, putting up 14.5 points per game. He’s also second in the Big Ten in steals per game with 2.6. Buie and senior forward Robbie Beran are the other players averaging in double figures for Northwestern. Once again, though, offense doesn’t seem to be a big priority for the Wildcats, who are averaging a Big Ten-worst 39% from the field and are 13th in the conference in scoring offense.
Northwestern brings one of the most experienced squads in the game. All five starters are upperclassmen and, with the exception of Audige who spent his first collegiate season at William and Mary, all have spent their collegiate careers in Evanston. All have at least three seasons playing for the Wildcats.
The Wildcats are led by head coach Chris Collins, who is in his 10th season in Evanston. He’s amassed a 143-152 overall record, including 57-113 in conference play. Before coming to Northwestern, Collins spent 13 seasons as an assistant at Duke, his alma mater, under Coach K’s tutelage. Having played high school ball in Northbrook, another north shore Chicago suburb, Collins was also Illinois Mr. Basketball in 1992.
If we were to look at Ohio State’s schedule so far this season for a comparable matchup, Northwestern plays strong defense with a more limited offense, similar to Rutgers. Ohio State pulled out a win against the Scarlet Knights at home earlier this season, but it wasn’t easy.
Ohio State has emerged with the second-best scoring offense in the Big Ten, averaging 82 points per game. It doesn’t hurt that the Buckeyes returned to full strength before facing Alabama A&M and had that game to gel before getting back into conference play.
The added personnel seemed to help fix some of the kinks we’d seen from the Buckeyes, who’d been struggling with turnovers. Ohio State had been averaging a dozen turnovers on the season (and many more in recent games, including 16 in the loss to North Carolina), but 10 turnovers versus the Bulldogs felt a lot cleaner.
Still, the Buckeyes’ free throw shooting was just 59% Thursday. Considering Northwestern plays such tight games (and that the Wildcats simply don’t seem to miss their free throws), that could be a problem if things come down to the wire this evening.
There’s also the bit that this game will be on the road in Big Ten play, which has tended to be a massive advantage for the home team in recent seasons. Then again, Welsh-Ryan Arena is the smallest of the conference’s basketball venues and Northwestern’s average attendance for home games has been around 3,300 fans (Ohio State’s home attendance has been closer to 11,000). And we all know how Ohio State fans turn out for Northwestern vs. Ohio State football games.
Northwestern has had a better-than-expected start to the season and surprised many with a conference win over Michigan State. They’re certainly not the same Wildcats who Ohio State beat in Columbus last season. While there’s a lot of basketball left to be played (and the leaderboard will almost assuredly shift as teams enter the grind of Big Ten play), Northwestern is looking more and more like a Tournament team.
Still, Ohio State has been able to match up against similar teams, even when not at full strength. We have to believe that the Buckeyes will be a better team in conference play with the complete roster at their disposal.
Things start to get real serious for Ohio State this week. We haven’t even addressed that, hot on the heels of Northwestern, the Buckeyes return home to face No. 1 Purdue Thursday. There’s certainly no time to waste in the New Year.
ESPN BPI: Ohio State 56.2%
Time: 7:30 p.m. ET