EVANSTON -- Reports of Tre Demps' irrelevance have been greatly exaggerated. After enduring a terrible start to Big Ten play, Demps has scored 53 points and shot over 50 percent from the field in his last two games. Demps will have to continue his second-half resurgence with Northwestern playing at Ohio State on Tuesday night, a team that Northwestern has not beaten since 2009. While both teams are not in the discussion for NCAA Tournament play due to underwhelming Big Ten performances, the game should be close. Ultimately, Northwestern must have elite play from its guards if it wants to finally defeat Thad Motta's Ohio State team.
More on Northwestern Basketball
More on Northwestern Basketball
In the previous game at Welsh-Ryan on Jan. 6, neither team played particularly well offensively. Other than the Buckeyes' Kam Williams, both offenses were stagnant for large portions of the game. However, Ohio State's defense was able to limit Tre Demps and Bryant McIntosh, thereby completely negating Northwestern's offensive capabilities. With Ohio State's own troubles scoring the basketball (148th in offensive efficiency on KenPom), the game could once again come down to whether Demps and McIntosh can get and hit shots. Both players shot a combined 25 percent in the previous contest, a 65-56 loss, and that number has to improve the Wildcats want to emerge victorious.
"We had some real careless turnovers and had poor shot selection at times in that game," Northwestern head coach Chris Collins said before practice Monday.
McIntosh struggled during Northwestern's five-game losing streak, but he bounced back against Minnesota with 20 points. Prior to the Minnesota game, McIntosh had been shooting 21 percent from three and shooting under 40 percent in Big Ten play. Ohio State did an excellent job wearing down McIntosh in the first game, and McIntosh has to avoid the mistakes he has been making recently. However, McIntosh and the team as a whole should have more confidence after stomping Minnesota.
While the guard play is the most important aspect for Northwestern's success, the play of Northwestern's big men will also have an impact. Northwestern actually has a slight height advantage over Ohio State on the inside, as the Wildcats are ranked above OSU in effective height. Dererk Pardon, an Ohio native, will make his second career start at center. Pardon played heavy minutes in the first game and picked up 14 rebounds. However, he was offensively inefficient by his standards, going 4 for 11 from the field and 1 of 4 from the line.
"I've been working with the coaches on different post moves and different ways to get open shots at the basket," Pardon said. "Running really gets me a lot of baskets in transition as well."
A win for Northwestern will be critical for both teams' postseason hopes. Making the NIT would be a step forward for the program, and Northwestern will have to pick up a win on the road at Ohio State or Purdue to solidify its record.
"We wanted to be in the position in February and March to play games that matter," said Collins. "That's something for this program, and for me, that's a big sign of progress."
Will Northwestern's defense hold up?
Northwestern's "Chameleon" defense played well against Minnesota, but that seems to be the only team that the defense actually works against. Northwestern will most likely continue to play its peculiar zone defense as it did in the first game, even though Ohio State's Kam Williams was able to repeatedly exploit holes in the defense. Keita Bates-Diop and JaQuan Lyle accomplished very little, however, and the defense was more effective against Ohio State than against Penn State or Indiana.
With Ohio State's offense struggling to score consistently, Northwestern needs to keep up the defensive intensity it displayed against Minnesota. Schematically, the defense could work against Ohio State as long as Northwestern can remain organized. Trevor Thompson and Williams were able to get too many easy baskets in the first game, and Northwestern will have trouble with Ohio State's athleticism and rebounding ability. However, Northwestern's glaring weakness against three-pointers should be neutralized by Ohio State's 34.2 three-point percentage. If Northwestern's defense can keep Ohio State under 0.85 points per possession, Northwestern can easily come out with a win.
Vic Law using time off wisely, Olah remains limited
The absence of Vic Law due to a shoulder injury has been one of the most persistent themes of this season, but he was at Monday's shootaround and was even seen taking a few shots. Collins said that Law has gained about 15 pounds since the beginning of the season and has matured significantly. There is no chance of Law coming back before the end of the year, but Collins remains confident in the sophomore's physical and mental development.
In other injury news, Alex Olah still has a walking boot on his injured left foot. Pardon's increase in minutes is a testament to how banged up Olah actually is. Olah will probably still not be able to play full minutes for at least a few games, and his effectiveness has been up and down since his return from a stress fracture in his foot. Northwestern's depth at center has not been an issue thanks to Pardon's emergence, but Olah's injury may force him to remain in a secondary role for the rest of the year.