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With everything on the line, Northwestern readies for final true regular season test

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The outcome of tonight’s trip to Columbus could spell the difference between a great season and a historic one.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 22 Women’s Northwestern at Wisconsin Photo by Lawrence Iles/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

By this time next week, if all goes according to plan, 14th-ranked Northwestern women’s basketball (24-3, 14-2 Big Ten) will have more program records than they know what to do with.

Two wins in their last two games would allow the Wildcats to secure a best-ever number of both overall victories (26) and conference victories (16) in a single season, not to mention only the second B1G title in team history and the first in 30 years. They’ll even have secured the highest seed that the squad has managed in the 26-year history of the conference tournament to boot.

The future, both near and far, is as bright as can be for head coach Joe McKeown and Northwestern. And plenty of milestones are in their path. But before they can take care of the most immediate, one significant (and one much less significant) obstacle stands in their way in the form of Ohio State.

Head coach Kevin McGuff’s resilient Buckeyes (17-10, 10-6), who lost their top three players in minutes per game from a 2018-19 team that had itself lost 79.3 of 85 points per game (the top six rotation players, including star Kelsey Mitchell) from the 2017-18 Big Ten Champions, are a surefire NCAA Tournament team, and one that has already faced off with a variety of difficult competition.

Among OSU’s resumé are impressive wins over current #5 Louisville and #22 Indiana (on the road nine days ago), along with relatively close losses to #6 UConn and #18 Iowa. The Buckeyes, who were riding a six-game winning streak until a remarkable 36-point performance from Arella Guirantes (who added a game-winning buzzer-beater for good measure) snapped it in the form of a Rutgers win on Saturday, have the distinct ability to hang tough with top competition.

Largely, that is due to their variability and flexibility, particularly on the offensive end. Ohio State has a whopping eight players who average at least seven points per game, each of whom are currently healthy, actively contributing, and seeing at least 16 minutes per game. That makes it difficult for even a defense like Northwestern’s Blizzard to contain them. Fortunately, like in virtually any offense, some standouts remain.

Dorka Juhasz, last year’s leading scorer, is up to 13.1 points and 8.8 rebounds per contest. The 6’4” center remains a walking contradiction: primarily a jump-shooter (though her inside game remains troublesome, especially given the ‘Cats’ recent struggles with post defense) despite her height and rebounding prowess, Juhasz excels beyond the arc (41%, up to 47% in conference) but cannot string together two free throws to save her life (51%).

Braxtin Miller, along with Janai Crooms, initiates the offense. The Oklahoma State transfer leads the team in minutes per game (31.4), assists per game (3.4, tied with Crooms), steals per game (1.5), and A/TO ratio (2.34, 4th in the conference among qualified players behind Sydney Wood, Veronica Burton, and Indiana’s Ali Patberg), but shoots a woeful 33 percent from the field. Crooms is a more capable scorer despite her woeful three-point and free throw shooting, but turns it over 3.1 times per contest.

Finally, the talented, yet disparate freshmen. Jacy Sheldon is a capable guard and the team’s third-leading scorer at nine points per contest, and Madison Greene, if with much less consistency and smaller overall output, matches her as a threat both beyond the arc and at the charity stripe. Each has appeared in every game this season.

And then we come to the apparent enigma that is Kierstan Bell. A McDonald’s All-American, the sixth-rated incoming recruit in the country per ESPN, a 6’1” guard with explosiveness, finesse, and even some shooting ability. Bell has started ten games this season, but pretty much exclusively comes off the bench now, playing approximately 21 transformative minutes per contest.

When she comes in, the ball is in her hands. Immediately. Bell takes 10.5 shots per game despite her limited minutes, 5.6 of them threes, and commits 2.2 turnovers, racking up a 30.7% usage rate and 11.1 points per game. Despite typically being relegated to the role of a substitute, Bell requires nearly a full defensive game plan of her own, though stopping or at least slowing her is very doable.

Defensively, the Buckeyes are relatively impressive, relying largely on athleticism and quickness to make things work. But with the Wildcats red-hot on that end, having amassed 80 points in five of their last six games, it might end up being a situation in which the two squads look to trade buckets all night.

Whether or not that ends up being the case, Northwestern will have to prevent Ohio State from getting out in transition. Typically using only an aggressive man-to-man, the Buckeyes make good use of their 16.4 forced turnovers per game, getting out and running at one of the fastest paces in the conference.

But NU’s backcourt has had a tremendous season with regards to protecting the ball (take another look at that assist-to-turnover stat) and certainly seem prepared to break down the Buckeyes’ defense and harangue their offense. With Ohio State coming off of a backbreaking loss just as they were starting to rise, the Wildcats will likely have a chance to step on the jugular. They’ll need to take advantage.

The Big Ten title is on the line. Heck, a #2 seed in the NCAA Tournament could be as well, thanks to recent developments. The most important regular season game in at least 30 years tips at 5 p.m. CDT tonight in Columbus, and will be televised on BTN.