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Northwestern vs. Ohio State: What to Watch

by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)

One team has beaten Ohio State on the road this season. That team is Indiana, ranked No. 1 in the latest AP Poll, owner of the most efficient offense in the country and a top-20 efficiency defense to boot. It was arguably the Hoosiers’ most impressive win this season; beating Ohio State – who was coming off one of its best efforts on the season (at Michigan) in its own right – in its own building is as monumental a road win as we’ve seen this season. And for a team that endured its share of problems against lesser equal and lesser competition on the road last season, handling business against one of the Big Ten’s best outfits – and barely batting an eye in the process – speaks to just how much Tom Crean’s team has grown since last season, and how very legitimate that top ranking (even if the Hoosiers lost at Illinois earlier this week) truly is.

By season’s end, there is a strong chance we’ll be able to look back and say Indiana was the only team to beat the Buckeyes in Columbus during league play. Because for all of Ohio State’s offensive flaws – namely the lack of a trusted second scorer behind Deshaun Thomas – you pretty much know what you’re going to get from the Buckeyes: one of the best defenses in the country featuring one of the sturdiest on-ball defenders in Aaron Craft, a developing group of secondary scorers and a timeless systematic approach that has allowed Thad Matta churn out conference title contenders year after year.

Handing this team its second straight home loss is a daunting challenge in itself. Doing it without your starting center (Alex Olah) and power forward (Jared Swopshire), on top of JerShon Cobb’s suspension and Drew Crawford’s shoulder injury, is quite possibly the toughest situation Northwestern has faced in any road game this season. But after Olah and Swopshire went down in Saturday’s loss at Iowa, the Wildcats are indeed up against the most stringent depth constraints they’ve seen allseason, and when you’re going on the road to take on the Big Ten’s No. 2 per-possession offense and defense, those are not the kind of problems you want limiting an already thin roster. This is, needless to say, a huge mismatch.

Three Players To Watch

Aaron Craft (junior, point guard)

Advanced metrics say Craft isn’t the best on-ball defender in the country, or even the Big Ten – that he doesn’t force as many turnovers as he used to, and that his game is built more on reputation than realized defensive merit. But if you actually watch Craft play, and appreciate all the little things – fighting through screens, the clever body-to-body contact that so finely toes the line between hard physical play and foul inducement, the way he juts into passing lanes and swipes away loose dribbles – it becomes quite obvious Craft is one of the smartest and most onerous one-on-one guards in college hoops.

And if there’s any slight drop-off in his defense this season, it’s because of what Craft is being asked to do on the offensive end. Aside from Thomas, the Buckeyes are thin on proven scorers, which has forced Craft to assume a greater share of the scoring load; Craft is using 19.2 percent of available possessions and taking 17.8 percent of shots, up nearly three and five points, respectively, from last season. Offense is not Craft’s biggest strength – his 105.7 offensive rating is just fine, but down nearly six points from last season. He excels on the other end of the floor, and that aspect of his game is as strong as it’s ever been (if only slightly less flattering statistically).

Deshaun Thomas (junior, forward)

I have no basketball coaching experience. My playing career ended on the middle school AAU circuit. But even I can come up with the basic defensive gameplan to counter Ohio State. It revolves around one player: Thomas. He entered the season looking to morph from a No. 2 scoring option behind Jared Sullinger to a dominating go-to scorer. Thomas has done that and more, taking an average of 32.5 percent of available shot attempts while posting a tidy 117.5 offensive rating, and managing to fend off double team after double team as opposing defenses focus their efforts on the Buckeyes’ most potent offensive weapon. What makes Thomas so difficult to match up is his versatility; Thomas can score in the post, face up on the perimeter or knock down those ice-cold 15-footers over variously-sized defenders.

His offensive skill set is the most unique offensive tool Ohio State has wielded since Evan Turner. Thomas hasn’t been the most efficient shooter at times, but the net effect of domineering command on that end of the floor has been overwhelmingly positive. Ohio State needs Thomas to take and make a lot of shots, and for the most part, Thomas has obliged to great effect. Holding him down for an entire game is almost impossible; containing him is the best hope. Either way, the Buckeyes don’t function nearly as efficiently or smoothly when Thomas isn’t scoring.

Lenzelle Smith Jr. (junior, guard)

On the rare occasion Thomas isn’t finding his shot, or an opponent figures out some novel individual stopping mechanism, the Buckeyes often stall out on the offensive end. Avoiding this problem is where Smith (and Shannon Scott and LaQuinton Ross) are especially important. Smith’s offensive numbers are down across the board this season, but that’s nothing unexpected when both his usage rate and shot percentage were, by necessity, increased. With Craft’s offensive limitations, and Ross, Scott and Sam Thompson still trying to to put it all together, Smith has been elevated, almost by default, into a pivotal scoring role. Teams are going to limit Thomas – there are defenders, limited as they may be, with the mental and physical skills to negate, or at least frustrate, his offensive potential.

When that happens, Smith has the ability to keep things moving and give the Buckeyes the offensive unpredictability they need to create opportunities for Thomas. Until Ross or Scott realize their full potential, Smith will continue to harness a huge part of the Buckeyes’ offensive attack. His demands and responsibilities vary, mostly depending on whether Ross or any of the Buckeyes’ other secondary scorers are scoring effectively, but Smith typically gets more floor time than those other players, and has flashed a streaky shooting stroke (see last season’s 28-point output against Indiana) that’s perfect for mitigating Thomas dry spells.

Matchup to Watch: Deshaun Thomas vs. ?

There is no favorable one-on-one matchup for Thomas. He is a potent offensive force with a multitude of strengths and physical advantages. The Wildcats don’t have anyone even remotely qualified to guard him individually. Zone defense is the logical counterpunch, but even then, is it hard to imagine Thomas finding holes and dominating the low block in an Olah-less -1-3-1? Thomas is going to get his points, and whatever defense consensus Bill Carmody settles on – a box and one? (ha) – the Buckeyes’ star will discover its weaknesses, create space and score at ease. So maybe the real “key matchup” in this game shouldn’t have anything much at all to do with Thomas. Maybe the Wildcats should focus on shutting down all of OSU’s ancillary offensive threats, prevent second chance opportunities and hope Thomas slinks into an uncharacteristically poor shooting night.

Other than that, devoting two (or even three) bodies to stopping Thomas is an inefficient usage of limited manpower. It may be that stifling the rest of the lineup – and treating Thomas as one of many – is the smarter play, given the personnel constraints. There is no best answer: Northwestern is at the point where keeping the best five players on the floor (and avoiding foul trouble) probably trumps and all strategic or matchup desires.

Prediction: Ohio State 75, Northwestern 60

The current state of Northwestern's roster is such that keeping five healthy players on the floor in any extended context could be more demanding than anything the Buckeyes throw at them Tuesday night. The Wildcats' own issues are concerning enough. Throw in an excellent defense, All America-caliber scorer and a solid complementary cast, and the Buckeyes should put away Northwestern swiftly and definitively. At full strength, I'd give this pick some deeper thought, but probably pull the trigger on the Buckeyes anyway. These teams are at different places right now. Northwestern is undermanned, plain and simple.