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Ohio State-Northwestern preview: Can the Wildcats break down the Buckeyes' defense?

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Can Northwestern finally beat Ohio State?

Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern hosts Ohio State Wednesday night at Welsh-Ryan Arena in what could be an early January bubble showdown. Both teams have the résumés of fringe NCAA Tournament contenders, but will need big win in Big Ten play to put themselves in the conversation. Wednesday is an opportunity for the first of those.

Northwestern is coming off its first conference loss, a not particularly close contest at home against Maryland, while Ohio State has won its previous six contests, including an impressive victory over then-No. 4 Kentucky at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

Ohio State has won 10 straight against Northwestern dating back to 2009, despite some close calls. Last year, the Wildcats outplayed the Buckeyes for significant portions of their game at Welsh-Ryan, but D'Angelo Russell beat NU single-handedly with 33 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists and 0 turnovers.

However, this could be the year Northwestern ends that streak. Ohio State is weaker than usual, while Northwestern is on the rise, although the injuries to would-be sophomore Vic Law and Romanian center Alex Olah sting particularly strong at the moment. Law is out for the season, but Olah's injury is a recent development. He will miss his fourth straight game Wednesday with a foot injury. Chris Collins will need to find the right balance between freshman Dererk Pardon and graduate transfer Joey van Zegeren at the center spot in Olah's absence.

Ohio State is a balanced team. Three players average double figures in points per game, while only two regulars average less than five points per game. In the team's stunning victory over Kentucky, all eight Buckeyes who played scored between 6 and 14 points. When the Buckeyes are sharing the ball, their offense can be effective. When it isn't, it looks more like the offense that scored under one point per possession against Mercer, Northern Illinois, Memphis and Texas-Arlington.

Ohio State's best player is probably forward Marc Loving, a Toledo, Ohio native, who is coming off a career-high 27 points in OSU's win Sunday over Illinois. The junior has seen his minutes and stats steadily increase in his three seasons on campus and this year, he leads the team in scoring at 15.2 ppg. Loving is a long, 6-foot-7 wing player who leads the team in three-point attempts.

KenPom predicts a close Northwestern victory, 67-63 and has the Wildcats pegged slightly higher than the Buckeyes overall, ranking Northwestern 50th while Ohio State checks in at 54th. Let's examine three keys that could bring victory to the Wildcats tomorrow night.

Northwestern's bigs

Olah will remain out, Collins said Tuesday, and there is still no timetable for his return. Olah's injury threw down the gauntlet to Northwestern's bigs, and while fifth-year senior Joey van Zegeren has played well, Collins knew they were going to be short on bigs until Olah returned. Enter freshman Dererk Pardon. After redshirting for the first 11 games, Olah's injury forced Collins to remove Pardon's redshirt, and Pardon responded in a big way, going for 28 points and 12 rebounds in his first Big Ten game. While that stat line may be an anomaly — his career high in high school was 22, after all — Pardon can certainly play and Collins has been impressed with his young freshman.

"I've been really pleased with how he is playing," Collins said Tuesday. "I thought he played a really good game against Maryland, he was really active. He is battling really big guys down there [in conference play]."

Against Maryland, van Zegeren and Pardon combined for 16 points, and Collins said he would be thrilled to get that kind of production from the center position on a nightly basis. While Ohio State is a young team, it has decent size with 6-foot-10 Daniel Giddens and 6-foot-11 Trevor Thompson manning the center position. The Buckeyes rank second in the Big Ten as a team with 6.2 blocked shots per game, while freshman Daniel Gibbons is third in the conference with 2.3 blocks per game. Their block percentage of 16.0 ranks eight nationally. For Northwestern to have a chance, van Zegeren and Pardon will have to play big and hold their own on the glass on both ends of the floor.

Northwestern's offense vs. Ohio State's defense

These two programs differ stylistically. Northwestern has a strong offense, ranking 33rd in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to KenPom, while their defense drags behind, grading out as slightly above-average with an adjusted defensive efficiency ranking 121st in the country.

On the other hand, Ohio State's defense ranks 33rd in the nation in adjusted efficiency, but its offense is closer to average at 117th.

The matchup between NU's offense and Ohio State's defense is thus the interesting one. It's often said that good offense beats good defense, but Northwestern's offense was really bothered by Maryland's length on Saturday, and Ohio State, to a lesser degree, poses a similar challenge. Like Maryland did, the Buckeyes will likely try to suffocate Northwestern's shooters and force the Wildcats to beat them with two-pointers. Without Olah, the onus may fall on Tre Demps, who NU desperately needs to snap out of his slump. His true shooting percentage has regressed to freshman-year levels, and he's shooting just 32 percent from three-point range on the season. He was 4-16 from the field against Maryland. If Demps can complement McIntosh's scoring, Northwestern could win this matchup, and win the game. If he can't, Northwestern could be in trouble.