It wasn’t long ago that the Ohio State men’s basketball team was 6-0 heading into a matchup at Virginia. Then, the Buckeyes lost seven of their next 11 games, including four consecutive Big Ten contests. On Sunday, a win against the Northwestern Wildcats (15-4, 4-2) would make it three straight for the Buckeyes and put them right back into the thick of things in the one of the most difficult conferences to figure out this season.
OSU escaped Nebraska with a 67-66 win on Thursday off a game-winning layup from senior forward Marc Loving with 0.6 seconds remaining. It was the Buckeyes first road win since Nov. 11 at Navy — the first game of the season.
For the second consecutive game, the Scarlet and Gray were able to dig themselves out of a hole. The Buckeyes were down by as much as 10 in the second half, but found a way to still win the game in a tough road environment. At 2-4 in the Big Ten, OSU still has its backs against the metaphorical wall, but the team is beginning to see a little daylight.
“It’s definitely a step in the right direction,” Loving said. “Before, we hadn’t been able to execute out of timeouts after drawing up a play and I was just happy to see that.”
Last time out against Northwestern, the Wildcats had a seven-point halftime lead before OSU exploded for a 15-point advantage in the second half to take the game 71-63. Five players were in double figures for the Buckeyes, which was the case in last Sunday’s win against Michigan State.
Four players scored double-digit points for the Buckeyes against Nebraska. Loving had a double-double with 15 points and 11 rebounds. The second-half difference was OSU locking down on defense — the Cornhuskers shot 24 percent in the second half — and limiting turnovers. OSU committed 11 in the first half and zero in the second.
A step in the right direction, maybe, but coach Thad Matta said those errors are unacceptable, especially against a Northwestern team that ranks 37th in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to KenPom ratings. OSU is 72nd best in that category.
“I want to see how we can continue to grow. We’re not a team that can feel good,” Matta said. “The biggest thing I want these guys to understand is we didn’t play very well in the first half. And to look and say, ‘well, we won the game, everything is fine.’ It’s not fine.”
The Wildcats are in the best shape the program has been in since the 2011-12 season to make the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history. Northwestern has lost close games to top-25 opponents Butler and Notre Dame, and beaten notable opponents like Dayton and Wake Forest this season. Coach Chris Collins’ team received seven votes this past week for the Associated Press top 25 and currently sits as a No. 9 seed in ESPN’s Joe Lunardi’s most recent bracketology. A road win in Columbus for the first time since 1977 would make the Wildcats even more appealing to the eyes of the selection committee and AP voters.
Northwestern has three players averaging at least 12 points a game, all of whom have had success in the past against OSU. Junior leading scorer Scottie Lindsey has been the most improved player for the Wildcats, averaging 15.8 points per contest compared to 6.4 last season. Lindsey has attempted 109 3-pointers this season, converting on 41.
Vic Law and Bryant McIntosh are the two other leaders for the Wildcats. Law sat out all of last season with a torn labrum in his left shoulder. Since his return, he is scoring better than 14 points per game and shooting 45 percent from 3. McIntosh leads the conference with 5.6 assists per game, but does turn the ball over roughly three times per contest.
Northwestern is rated No. 31 by KenPom whereas OSU is No. 57.
If there’s advantage anywhere in the matchup, it will be determined on the glass and in turnover margin. OSU has struggled allowing offensive rebounds in several matchups. The Buckeyes have equally struggled in keeping possession once they get it.
OSU turns over the ball 13 times per game with a negative turnover margin. Northwestern commits 11 turnovers per game and has a positive turnover margin. On the glass, OSU gave up nine offensive rebounds to a Nebraska team that averages 11.7 per game.
Northwestern gathers less than 10 offensive rebounds on average, but ranks tied for 117th in the nation in defensive rebounding to OSU at 15th with over 26 per game.
Foul trouble for OSU’s top rebounders was a problem against Nebraska. Redshirt junior center Trevor Thompson, who averages nine rebounds per game, fouled out at the last media timeout and junior forward Jae’Sean Tate played with four fouls for the final four minutes. If it becomes an issue again on Sunday, OSU could have difficulty with putting bodies on 6-foot-8 Dererk Pardon and 6-foot-6 Sanjay Lumpkin and limit second-chance opportunities.
Still, OSU has played well at home and there’s isn’t a reason why the Buckeyes shouldn’t play well with a chance to extend the winning streak. Thompson should own the glass which will prove to be the difference.
Prediction: Ohio State 71, Northwestern 65