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Is Ohio State a must-win game for Northwestern men’s basketball?

The expectations for this ‘Cats team have undoubtedly been raised.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Northwestern Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

The magic of Welsh-Ryan Arena is a gift that keeps on giving.

Wednesday night’s 96-91 victory over No. 10 Illinois – a team Northwestern lost to by 30 just over three weeks ago in Champaign – is an incredible feat for the ‘Cats. The return of Terrence Shannon Jr. – who was repeatedly booed and heckled by Northwestern’s students in only his second game back after being suspended in wake of a rape charge – made this Illinois team look even better on paper than the one that demolished Northwestern on January 2nd. Still, it wasn’t enough for the Fighting Illini to escape the wrath of the Welsh.

For the ‘Cats, Boo Buie led the charge with 29 points, further solidifying his legacy as one of the all-time great Northwestern basketball players. Brooks Barnhizer finished with 23, capped off by a massive four-point play in overtime that permanently put NU in front. Ty Berry also hit his stride in the second half, lighting up from beyond the arc down the stretch and giving Northwestern much-needed momentum to push the Fighting Illini into overtime.

The victory gives Northwestern four NET ranking Quad 1 wins on the season, including two over top-10 ranked conference foes. This impressive résumé should allow the ‘Cats to control their destiny in making the NCAA Tournament for a second straight season, which would be a first in program history.

The first step in controlling that destiny is to beat Ohio State when it comes to the Welsh on Saturday. Coming off a loss to Nebraska, the Buckeyes will look to return to the win column as they reach a pivotal moment in their season. Yet, Welsh-Ryan Arena has proven to be a fortress for the ‘Cats, especially when the students are present.

So, is this game a must-win for Northwestern? I’ll say yes, simply because every home game should give the ‘Cats an edge at this point. Their sole loss at Welsh-Ryan came against Chicago State in potentially one of the worst losses in program history. However, while inexcusable, there were no students, barely any outside fans, and an utter lack of confidence. Flash forward to the New Year as January nears a close, and that narrative has completely flipped. With six home games remaining on the docket, the ‘Cats have given me no reason to believe they shouldn’t be the team that emerges victorious in every single one of those matchups.

If Northwestern can beat Purdue, Illinois, Dayton, Michigan State and an array of other strong teams on its home court, Ohio State should be no different. The Buckeyes currently sit ninth in the Big Ten standings with a conference record of 3-5 and have thus far been limited to home victories against Minnesota, Rutgers and Penn State. None of these wins are particularly impressive in a conference where winning on the road has become almost impossible. Yet, we aren’t talking about a home game here. OSU is one of two teams in the Big Ten still yet to record a win on the road, having gone 0-4 away from the Schottenstein Center. That statistic is certainly a telling one and should be an encouraging takeaway for the ‘Cats as they look ahead to Saturday.

The Buckeyes still have their fair share of talent, however. The trio of Bruce Thornton, Jamison Battle and Roddy Gayle Jr. is dangerous, collectively scoring over half of OSU’s 76.1 average points per game. All three are among the top 20 scorers in the conference and can be lethal if not taken care of. The ‘Cats have also struggled mightily on the boards, and big man Felix Okpara could also present some issues for Northwestern’s small-ball approach on both ends.

Funnily enough, Ohio State ranks higher in offensive and defensive performance than the ‘Cats, scoring more points and conceding less on average. However, the numbers don’t tell the entire story. Northwestern is a much better and more well-rounded team, and should be expected to win this game convincingly. Buie, Berry and Barnhizer are unstoppable when they get in a groove and are expected to shine under pressure game in and game out. Even Matt Nicholson’s performances have drastically improved to the point where he seems to have regained his spot in the starting five, giving the ‘Cats a plethora of options, including Nicholson, Luke Hunger, Blake Preston and even Nick Martinelli at center.

It’s not a must-win because Northwestern necessarily needs to win this game. A loss wouldn’t kill its hopes of going dancing, nor would it likely cause mass panic among players, coaches and fans. This team has done enough to prove that it’s not a pretender, and that all the hype it has received over these past couple of months is justified. It’s a must-win because, simply put, Northwestern should win this game. With one of the best home-court advantages in the nation and given the context of recent results, there’s no reason why the ‘Cats should fall short.

With the easiest remaining Big Ten schedule, the dog days are almost over for the ‘Cats. After Purdue, the schedule falls in NU’s favor with every game appearing winnable. So, before the Boilermakers potentially serve up a side of vengeance at Mackey Arena on Wednesday, the ‘Cats need a decisive win of their own. They need to get the job done against Ohio State, and maintain control over their destiny in the process.