Ohio State Basketball: 5 Keys to Beating Northwestern in B1G Clash
The mood surrounding Ohio State basketball is once again trending upward after a much-needed quality win over the No. 4 ranked Michigan State Spartans.
However, things would turn sour again quickly if Thad Matta doesn’t have his team prepared to take on a tricky Northwestern squad Thursday night. The Wildcats controlled the first matchup in Columbus for 37 minutes before the Buckeyes recovered in time with a late run to win 69-59.
With a game at Indiana on the horizon, Ohio State must first ensure that its attention is on this potential trap game. Read on to see five keys to doing just that and beating Northwestern.
Defend the Three
Northwestern may be the only power conference member in the country to never play in the NCAA tournament, but it knocks off a handful of highly ranked Big Ten teams every year behind hot three-point shooting.
The Wildcats almost did just that to the Buckeyes in the first game in Columbus.
The Northwestern starters shot a blistering 50 percent from downtown behind 11 made three pointers. Long-range shooting accounted for 56 percent of the Wildcats’ final score.
One of the issues for Ohio State in the first matchup was Kale Abrahamson’s ability to stretch the floor, something that Deshaun Thomas isn’t accustomed to seeing from the power forward spot. Thomas, perhaps not used to defending the three, sagged off too many times, which allowed Abrahamson to tally three threes of his own.
If the Buckeyes defend the three, they will stop Northwestern’s offense. It is as simple as that.
Pick Up Pace of Play
Ohio State’s struggles with half-court offense have been well documented this season, and the first game against Northwestern was no exception.
The Buckeyes were befuddled by the Wildcats’ matchup zone, which led to dragged-out possessions and contested threes at the end of the shot clock. They finished 5-of-17 from behind the arc because many were forced attempts after a failure to establish anything resembling an offensive set.
To Thad Matta’s credit, he realized what was happening before it was too late and played without a center for the last few minutes. That sped up the game and allowed the Buckeyes to get out in transition, which was instrumental in the late 12-0 run that secured the victory.
Ohio State also had success in the second half against Michigan State when it sped up the pace of play. Shannon Scott and Aaron Craft generated fast-break opportunities from their defensive pressure against the Spartan guards and spearheaded an impressive comeback.
If that happens Thursday night, the Buckeyes will counteract Northwestern’s zone and have more success finding the basket.
Get Deshaun Thomas Inside
Deshaun Thomas is still scoring points, but he is doing so in a much less efficient manner than he was earlier in the season.
His field-goal and three-point percentages have both decreased as Big Ten play wears on, to the point where he is shooting worse from the field this year—the season where he has been so lauded as an offensive threat—than in his first two years in Columbus.
The extra defensive attention that he draws without the likes of Jared Sullinger inside is a primary reason for the lower percentage, but it doesn’t change the fact that Ohio State needs him to be a scoring machine if it is going to make any noise down the stretch. The scoring efforts from other options have been too inconsistent.
Thomas struggled from the field early in the first matchup with the Wildcats until he started to go down low late in the game. He was the de facto center in Thad Matta’s center-less lineup for the last five minutes, and his offense from the low block (along with the defense from the guards) carried his team to victory.
If the Buckeyes can get Thomas some easy looks down low early, his percentages will rise, and the floor will open up for the outside shooting.
Pound the Glass Again
Ohio State absolutely destroyed an undermanned Northwestern team on the glass in the first matchup and still almost lost on its home court.
The Buckeyes grabbed 37 rebounds, 16 of which were offensive, to the Wildcats 16. Yes, the Scarlet and Gray had as many offensive rebounds as Northwestern had total rebounds yet still almost lost the game.
Imagine what would have happened if the Buckeyes didn’t control the rebounding in such a dramatic fashion.
Thad Matta’s bunch, which is ranked 120th in the country in total rebounding, doesn’t often have a big advantage on the glass on paper heading into a conference matchup. But everyone has an advantage on paper against the 311th ranked Wildcats.
Northwestern does a lot of things well, such as shoot the three and slow down the pace of the game, that can drive a favorite crazy, so the Buckeyes need to deliver on their biggest advantage of this contest.
Avoid Emotional Letdown in Sandwich Game
Despite an early win against Michigan in Big Ten play, the Ohio State basketball team has been hounded by questions and doubt about its lack of marquee victories this year. The Buckeyes were 1-7 against ranked opponents heading into Sunday’s Michigan State game and appeared destined for a middle seeding in the NCAA tournament because of it.
Funny how perspective can change with just one impressive effort.
Now the Buckeyes have a resume that includes victories over two Top 10 teams and another Top 20 team (Wisconsin) and zero losses to “bad” opponents. Feeling confident from an instrumental win against the Spartans and with Indiana looming, it is not difficult to envision a scenario where Ohio State overlooks lowly Northwestern.
Thad Matta’s primary job Thursday will be ensuring this doesn’t happen. The Buckeyes almost lost to the Wildcats at home and always struggle against them in Evanston.
In fact, it took a Jared Sullinger buzzer-beater for Ohio State to escape Northwestern with a win last year, and when the Buckeyes were ranked No. 1 the year before, in Evanston they only won by a measly point.
There is historical precedent for a favored Matta team to struggle in these games. He must remind this year’s squad not to join this list.