Fresh off a dreadful, awful, embarrassing 66-46 road loss to Indiana, Northwestern returns to Allstate Arena Wednesday night to take on one of the hottest teams in the country, led by the frontrunner for Big Ten Player of the Year.
This should go well.
Since the start of this basketball season, Northwestern and Ohio State have gone in completely opposite directions. It’s now clear that the Wildcats (11-8, 2-4 Big Ten) were wildly overrated and the Buckeyes (15-4, 6-0) vastly underrated, but it’s somewhat freaky how the teams’ coinciding decline and ascension inversely mirror each other.
In Kenpom’s season-opening rankings, Northwestern clocked in at 18, with Ohio State miles below at 78. Two months and change later, NU has plummeted all the way down to...78. Ohio State? They’re up to 14 (No. 22 in AP) after rising 33 spots over their last four games. In Chris Holtmann’s first year, the Buckeyes have been arguably the most surprising great team in the country. With a victory, they can move to 7-0 in conference play and regain shared possession of first place in the Big Ten with Purdue.
At least for the moment, Ohio State basketball is back. Thad Matta turned the Buckeyes into a national power during his tenure, taking the program to the National Championship game in 2007 and then four straight Sweet Sixteens from 2010-2013. However, OSU slipped from its lofty standards after that, reaching a low point during last year’s 17-15 (7-11) season, the worst of Matta’s career. The team and longtime coach parted ways this offseason, and in came Holtmann after three seasons at Butler.
Surely, it would be a rebuilding year for the Bucks, right? Nope. Led by Keita Bates-Diop turning into one of the best players in the country and an unexpectedly strong supporting cast, Ohio State looks like it will be a real force in the Big Ten title race and in March. OSU has won its last four Big Ten games by double figures, including an 80-64 victory over then-No. 1 Michigan State that signified the Buckeyes’ national arrival.
On the floor, it starts and ends with Bates-Diop, a versatile talent who averaged 12 points and 6 boards as a sophomore but only played nine games last year due to injury. He’s come back with a vengeance this season and is currently leading the Big Ten in scoring at 20.3 points per game. Oh, and KBD is also pacing Ohio State in rebounding (8.8/g), blocks (1.8) and steals (1.2). He’s shooting 41 percent from three; Bates-Diop is the Buckeyes’ most efficient shooter despite a massive usage rate. Outside of Trae Young, this is the best player Northwestern has seen and will see all year. Let’s just hope it goes better than the Cats’ showdown with Young did.
Beyond Bates-Diop, Holtmann also has three other players scoring in double-figures. Junior point guard CJ Jackson averages over 13 a game and shoots 42 percent from deep. The other two are senior Jae’Sean Tate (who you’re no doubt familiar with by now) and freshman big man Kaleb Wesson. The bench, led by Kam Williams, is strong too.
Adjusted Ranks (Kenpom)
|Ohio State rank
|Ohio State rank
Basically, this is going to be a really tough game for Northwestern to win. Given how good Ohio State is, that would be true even if the Wildcats were also playing well. But factor in how terrible NU has been recently other than the Minnesota game, and this seems like an impossible task. I’m really not sure how Ohio State is only favored by 3.
But hey, the game isn’t played on paper. Maybe Northwestern can look like it did last Wednesday and pick up another win at Allstate. Maybe Scottie Lindsey can snap out of his shooting slump that reached a new low with a 1-for-15 outing in Bloomington. It’s just getting really hard to hold onto any sort of optimism about this team.
That doesn’t mean I’m going to give up on this team, or that any of you should. As a fanbase, we got a taste of postseason success last season, and it’s obviously been disappointing to see NU regress so sharply in the face of major expectations. But this season isn’t much different than plenty of recent ones. I’m still going to watch, to support my team and appreciate the careers of Lindsey, Bryant McIntosh, and Gavin Skelly while I can. And even though a return to the Big Dance isn’t happening, maybe Northwestern can provide some more fun nights throughout the rest of the year.
A win over No. 22 Ohio State would certainly qualify.
Game Time, location: 8 p.m. central, Allstate Arena
TV: Big Ten Network
Mobile: BTN2Go App
Radio: 720 WGN
KenPom prediction: 67-71 (34% chance to win)
Betting Line: OSU -3
Last meeting: Northwestern 74, OSU 72 in Columbus on 1/22/17