by Luke Srodulski (@lukeysrodulski)
When Northwestern fell 69-59 to the Buckeyes two weeks ago, the Wildcats surprised many with their solid performance, despite the loss. They went into Value City Arena and were tied with then No. 13 Ohio State with just over three minutes remaining before succumbing to a late run.
What was most impressive was what NU did with the personnel it put on the floor. Jared Swopshire suffered a season-ending knee injury and Alex Olah a concussion in the game before, leaving them with just seven scholarship players. But they went out and knocked down 11 threes to give themselves a chance to pull the upset.
Since then, the losses have progressively become uglier, culminating in a 74-43 shellacking from Purdue. Since the Ohio State game, the offense has been dreadful. They have failed to put up over 43 points or shoot 30 percent from the field, leaving them still winless since Swopshire was injured five games ago.
Now, Ohio State comes into Evanston to take on the physically and mentally depleted Cats. It’s difficult to imagine that they’ll be able to put up the same fight as they did last time, since their confidence seems to be plummeting as each possession passes.
Since they last met
Northwestern may be reeling, but the Buckeyes are beginning to get into a groove. After enduring a 21-point blowout at Wisconsin, they turned the tables and smashed Minnesota. Next, they protected their home court by taking down Michigan State 68-60.
Their success starts on the defensive end. They forced a combined 35 turnovers against Minnesota and Michigan State, while only coughing it up 20 times themselves. The only troubling sign is that they haven’t had great success on the boards. They’ve been out-rebounded in each of the last three games, a trend that will likely end Thursday.
After searching in vain for the majority of the season, the Buckeyes may have finally found a second scorer to back up the Big Ten’s leading scorer, Deshaun Thomas. Against the Spartans, point guard Aaron Craft showed aggressiveness on the offensive end that he tends to save for the other end of the floor. Known as a lockdown defender and a consistent floor leader, he attacked the basket relentlessly and finished with 21 points. His performance led the way in a game where Thomas struggled to 14 points on 4-of-16 shooting.
What to watch for: the 2-3 zone
Last time out against the Buckeyes, Northwestern went to the 2-3, which is rarely seen from Bill Carmody. Initially, it did its job and forced Ohio State to take long jumpers. They were given plenty of open looks from three-point range, but they knocked down just 5-of-17.
At certain points, the Buckeyes seemed to have it figured out. They swung the ball around quickly until finding either Thomas, Sam Thompson, or Lenzelle Smith Jr. for a baseline drive. If the ‘Cats go to the zone, the first priority will be to prevent these drives, but forcing their opponents to shoot from outside is a gamble that could go either way.
The main difficulty in this zone is rebounding. Preventing second chances is an issue for Northwestern no matter the defense, but the zone makes it even tougher. Whereas the man-to-man leaves each man knowing whom he has to box out, the 2-3 often leaves them out of position to rebound and results in tip-ins. For a team that rebounds only 64 percent of opponents’ missed shots, it’s unlikely that the Wildcats will be able to keep Ohio State off the offensive glass.
Prediction: Ohio State 72, Northwestern 46
Facing a team that is second in the conference in points allowed, Northwestern will have a tough time breaking 50 points, given their recent offensive struggles. They’ll be forced to take a lot of outside shots, and the last few games have not indicated that they will hit them.
Rebounding is set to be a key factor once again. Mike Turner has been thrust into the position of Jared Swopshire, who was easily the team’s best rebounder before his injury, but he hasn’t been able to fill the void. Alex Olah will have a tough time handling Amir Williams, who is much more mobile, leaving the Buckeyes poised to have a big day on the boards.