In any other conference, all eyes would be on No. 16 Ohio State.
With one of the nation’s leading scorers and fresh off a decisive upset of a top-five team, the Buckeyes have primed themselves for an ostensible tournament run. Despite fielding NBA-ready junior Deshaun Thomas and knocking off then-No. 4 Michigan State Sunday, Thad Matta’s team has somehow remained under the radar in the crowded Big Ten.
Ohio State’s story reads a little differently this season. After powering through the Big Ten and reaching the Final Four in 2012, the Buckeyes have leapt from the national spotlight to go just 2-7 against AP-ranked teams, while landing a paltry 100th in the country in total scoring. As Indiana and Michigan climb through the standings, Ohio State has been relegated to the conference’s middle of the pack.
But as junior guard Aaron Craft dropped a career-high 21 points and the Buckeyes stunned State by a 68-60 final, who is to say OSU isn’t as good as it's ever been?
The answers pick up in Evanston.
The last time Ohio State took the purple-stained floor of Welsh-Ryan Arena, back on Feb. 29 of last year, the Buckeyes were lifted by a dramatic game-winning layup from forward Jared Sullinger with just 3.1 seconds remaining. With a depleted roster and double-digit losses in seven of its last eight games, this Northwestern team could be done by halftime.
The Wildcats kept things close with the Buckeyes back on Feb. 14, when Northwestern got 16 points from freshman guard Tre Demps and held a lead as late as the final five minute mark. Yet averaging just 46 points over their last four losses, the 'Cats look to have bottomed out. Against an Aaron Craft that produces on both ends of the floor and a Buckeyes team that is finally playing with Sullinger-type swagger, Northwestern is likely in for a long night Thursday.
What to watch for
Ohio State’s perimeter defense
OSU is anchored by Craft, who’s arguably the best pure defender in the nation. The junior sits low to the ground and touts incredible reaction speed to force steals and loose balls. Averaging two swipes a game, Craft will wreak havoc on Northwestern’s backcourt.
The Buckeyes defend the perimeter well, a problem for the three-heavy Wildcats. Junior Lenzelle Smith Jr. is a good defender at the two spot, while sophomore forward Sam Thompson is a reliable wing defender as well.
With no post game, Northwestern will have to find a way to break through Ohio State’s sturdy first line of defense.
Similar to Sullinger, Thomas is an undersized power forward who can score in bunches and hold his own in interior defense.
Thomas averages 19.9 points per game and is the only Big Ten player to crack the nation’s top 20 scorers. Despite a recent slump that includes a messy 4-of-16 effort against Michigan State, Thomas poses a formidable mismatch for Northwestern’s Reggie Hearn and Mike Turner.
Thomas dropped 22 in his first look at the 'Cats this season and should be watched closely Thursday.
Northwestern’s first option
It’s no secret that the Wildcats have lacked a definitive first-option scorer this season. Against Purdue Sunday, Tre Demps lead all 'Cats with just nine points.
Northwestern will need Reggie Hearn to carry the load Thursday. Hearn has taken 11 or fewer shots in six of his last nine starts and will need to up his output with sophomore point guard Dave Sobolewski all but blanketed by Craft.
Ohio State is too fast up front and too big down low for the Wildcats to keep up. While Craft won’t come anywhere close to 21 points, Demps and Sobolewski are completely shut out on the perimeter.
Without a consistent offensive option to stay even with Thomas, Northwestern is blown out again.
Ohio State 71, Northwestern 46