Twice, Ohio State had a chance in the final seconds.
Duane Washington Jr. soared through the air for an uncontested layup that he missed, then E.J. Liddell tried to clean it up with an offensive rebound under the basket yet got stripped. Moments later, the clock hit zeros and Northwestern's bench erupted with the Wildcats securing a 71-70 win against Ohio State on Dec. 26 to cap off one of the team's best three-game stretches in years.
On Wednesday night, they'll meet again, but this time the game will tip off in the Schottenstein Center instead of in Evanston, Illinois.
|Northwestern (6-4, 3-3)||Columbus, Ohio (Schottenstein Center)||7 p.m.||BTN|
After falling at the hands of the Wildcats a few weeks ago, this is the Buckeyes' chance for revenge. If they can win – as an eight-point favorite – they'd secure their first back-to-back wins of conference play this season after rolling through Rutgers on Saturday for their first top-25 in-conference road win in nearly three years.
Northwestern, conversely, is winless since beating Chris Holtmann's team. A good chunk of the three-game losing streak, though, can be attributed to a Murderer's Row of a schedule with games versus No. 5 Iowa (away), No. 7 Michigan (away) and No. 14 Illinois (home) that led to consecutive losses of between 15 and 29 points. Prior to that gauntlet, the Wildcats were 3-0 against Big Ten opposition.
"They've got great skill, great ability to score the ball and really good positional length," Holtmann said on Tuesday. "As always, Chris does a great job putting your defense in difficult positions right now. They're good in transition, have shown the ability to really score in transition, score fast, play fast. Like any team, they've went through a gauntlet of a schedule here like we all face in this league and are going to face in this league. They've had a week to prepare. I'm sure they will be ready to go. Obviously, we need to be ready to go. It'll be a great challenge."
Three Things To Watch
Injuries Leave Buckeyes Short-Handed
The point guard situation, to say the least, wasn't expected to look like this in mid-January.
Ohio State intended to roll with CJ Walker and Abel Porter. Then, Porter's basketball career suddenly came to an end before the season due to a diagnosis of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. The Buckeyes responded by having Meechie Johnson enroll in mid-December. The NCAA approving Jimmy Sotos' immediate-eligibility waiver helped, too.
But last week Walker was shut down indefinitely with torn ligaments in his right hand, and Sotos suffered a shoulder injury in his first start on Saturday. Holtmann ruled Walker out for Wednesday's game against Northwestern and said there was "no definitive word" yet on Sotos' status. If the former Bucknell transfer guard can't play, the Buckeyes will have to take on the Wildcats with the only point guard on their roster being Johnson, who began practicing less than a week ago and made his collegiate debut in four scoreless minutes against Rutgers over the weekend.
"You're looking at all options at this point," Holtmann said.
Should Sotos sit out, Johnson could see a slight uptick in minutes. But his Ohio State career has just begun. There's a cap on what one can expect of him.
The more likely option would be to have Duane Washington Jr. and Justice Sueing play more on the ball than they have all season. Neither of them played particularly well in the first meeting with Northwestern, though. Washington went 1-for-9 from the field and Sueing was on the court for just 16 minutes.
"I think it'll require guys to move around different positions if Jimmy's not available, and we'll have to have a really good understanding of what we're trying to do," Holtmann said.
Elsewhere, Ohio State isn't a bastion of health either.
Seth Towns remains easing his way back into action after missing more than 1,000 days due to a knee injury. He played fewer than 10 minutes in each of the past two games. Kyle Young continues to deal with lower-leg soreness that has been somewhat of a constant over the past couple of years. Ibrahima Diallo is out with a sprained MCL.
Can The Forwards Win The Game?
Whether the Buckeyes had uncertainty in their backcourt or not, the forwards were always going to be a major component of Wednesday's rematch.
E.J. Liddell and Young proved difficult for Northwestern to contain in the first meeting, leading the team with 15 and 14 points, respectively, while each grabbing eight rebounds. Of late, they've found their groove on the court together. They'll need a repeat of their December performance versus the Wildcats for the Buckeyes to win the rematch.
"They've got a really good chemistry together," Holtmann said. "I think they complement each other in a good way. When we're playing well, those guys are at the center of it."
Those two Buckeye forwards will see a healthy dose of Ryan Young (6-foot-10, 245-pound center) and Pete Nance (6-foot-10, 225-pound forward). Young averages nine points and a team-high 6.1 boards per game, and Nance is managing 11.4 points and 5.8 rebounds per contest.
Stopping Kopp And The Outside Shot
Smooth ball movement is key to the offense of Northwestern, which ranks second in the country with 66.5 percent of its makes being assisted. That, naturally, has helped the Wildcats get open outside shots. They're hitting 39 percent of 3-pointers – the 23rd-best mark nationally – with four players who both shoot more multiple triples per game and have hit them at at least a 40 percent clip.
Miller Kopp, a 6-foot-7, 215-pound forward, leads Northwestern in scoring with 13.8 points per game and dropped 23 points in the season's first matchup with Ohio State. A threat from deep, he's hitting 51.6 percent of his 3s. Boo Buie (6-foot-2, 180-pound guard),Ty Berry (6-foot-3, 190-pound guard) and Robbie Beran (6-foot-9, 215-pound forward) are each shooting between 40-44 percent from behind the arc.
Prediction: Ohio State 73, Northwestern 68