Basketball Preview: Ohio State Seeks Bounceback Performance Against Northwestern in First Home Game in Four Weeks

By Griffin Strom on January 9, 2022 at 8:35 am
Pete Nance, E.J. Liddell
Barbara J. Perenic/Columbus Dispatch via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Two teams reeling from recent Big Ten losses will try to right the ship at the Schottenstein Center Sunday.

Northwestern (8-4, 1-2 B1G) Schottenstein Center 5:30 p.m. BTN

Ohio State, which suffered its first conference loss to Indiana on Thursday – its first loss in any game since Nov. 24 – will play host to a Northwestern team that has lost its last two league games before coming to Columbus to close out the week.

Due to the Buckeyes’ recent three-week COVID-19 pause, Ohio State hasn’t played a home game since Dec. 11, but Chris Holtmann and company still have yet to lose a game on their home floor this season.

In his ninth year at the helm of the Wildcat program, head coach Chris Collins is off to an 8-4 start to the season, Northwestern’s best since 2018-19. The Wildcats have two wins over major conference foes, Maryland and Georgia, but have also lost to the likes of Providence and Wake Forest before suffering defeats in their past two Big Ten outings.

The Buckeyes and Wildcats split two highly competitive games against one another a season ago, but Ohio State has a 4-2 edge over Northwestern under Holtmann and a 98-24 advantage all-time.

"They get up and down, I think they're one of the fastest-playing teams in the Big Ten right now," Ohio State senior forward Justin Ahrens said of the Wildcats Saturday. "Just how fast they get a shot on goal, whether it's in transition or in the halfcourt. So that's something we're gonna have to be keyed in on in practice today is getting back and getting our defense set in transition ... they're a team that can get rolling pretty quick."

Update: The Buckeyes will be without head coach Chris Holtmann and assistant coach Ryan Pedon due to health and safety protocols. Assistant coach Jake Diebler will serve as acting head coach for Ohio State against the Wildcats.

Three Things to Watch For

Can Buckeyes bounce back from season’s worst shooting effort?

Ohio State’s offensive effort against Indiana was its worst of the season by a considerable margin. The Buckeyes scored 14 fewer points than they had against any prior opponent, and their field-goal percentage was their poorest of the year by nearly 7 percent. Ohio State might have been still getting re-acclimated to the hardwood after its long break in action, but the Buckeyes won’t be getting much sympathy from Big Ten foes for that fact.

It won’t help Ohio State that Northwestern has the second-best scoring defense in the conference (62.9 points per game) with the second-lowest average opponent field-goal percentage (37.5).

Wildcats on two-game Big Ten skid

The start of the true Big Ten grind has not been kind to Northwestern. The Wildcats have lost two in a row as the all-conference stretch of the regular season has gotten underway, falling to both Michigan State and Penn State at home in the past seven days. The losses haven’t been particularly concerning, given that the Wildcats only lost by a combined deficit of seven points.

But around the same time last year, Northwestern’s first two-game skid of the season snowballed into a whopping 13-game losing streak through most of the Big Ten schedule that utterly submarined a group that started the year 6-1.

Assist-to-turnover ratio

Several Wildcat stats, both offensively and defensively, rank near the top of the conference through Northwestern’s first 12 games. But one category the Wildcats own all to themselves is assist-to-turnover ratio, in which their 2.13 mark is the best in the Big Ten. The same goes for Northwestern’s turnover margin, which is tops in the league at 5.83. The Buckeyes rank in the bottom seven teams in the Big Ten in both categories, as they’ve struggled with turnovers all season, and the disparity here could be a storyline in this one.

Three Important Buckeyes

E.J. Liddell

Liddell appears to have hit a wall since Ohio State returned from its 22-day COVID-19 layoff, as the junior forward is just 5-for-26 in the past two games with an average of 10.5 points per game. The last two games have been Liddell’s two worst shooting performances of the season by a wide margin, and his two lowest scoring outputs as well. The Buckeyes often go as Liddell goes, as evidenced by the second half of Thursday’s Indiana loss, and Ohio State will need its star player to break out of his slump to get back in the win column Sunday.

“I don’t want to speak for him. I think in general he doesn’t quite look the same, but also I think tonight they really defended him well,” Holtmann said after the Indiana game. "We gotta figure out how to get him into a few better spots and I think he’s gotta impose himself a little bit more, really, in terms of some of the effort plays that he can make to create some easy baskets. That’s the biggest challenge for him right now.”

Kyle Young

Another Buckeye that seems to have been impacted by Ohio State’s long absence from live competition is fifth-year forward Kyle Young, whose layoff was even longer due to a non-COVID related illness. In his first game back, Young mustered just three points and two boards in a performance that lacked his usual workmanlike effort and spark off the bench. Young had been averaging double-digit points prior to Thursday’s game, and his ability to score, defend and create extra possessions is always an X-factor for Ohio State.

Zed Key

Ohio State’s starting five-man played the fewest minutes of any game all year against Indiana with just 15. Key didn’t have much of a chance to get going in that time span either, as he attempted just two shots from the field and missed both of them. The 6-foot-8 forward needs a steadier diet of post touches to get his offense going against Northwestern, but his defensive effort must match his offensive intensity after a game in which Trayce Jackson-Davis lit the Buckeye bigs up for 27 points.

Three Important Wildcats

Player Position Height Weight Stats
BOO BUIE G 6-2 180 15.3 PPG, 5.8 APG
TY BERRY G 6-3 185 8.3 PPG, 2.6 RPG
CHASE AUDIGE G 6-4 200 10.2 PPG, 4.8 RPG
ROBBIE BERAN F 6-9 215 6.4 PPG, 4.6 RPG
PETE NANCE F 6-10 225 15.9 PPG, 7.3 RPG

Pete Nance

The Akron, Ohio, native has been a solid contributor for the Wildcats over the past several seasons, but Nance has taken his game to another level as a senior. At 6-foot-10, 225 pounds, Nance is averaging a team-best and career-high 15.9 points per game and 7.3 rebounds, and he’s hitting 50.3 percent of his shots. Nance is also knocking down nearly 43 percent of his 2.9 3-point attempts per game, dishing out 2.7 assists on average and blocking 1.8 shots a night for Northwestern. Holtmann and the Buckeyes have seen plenty of Nance over the years, but this will be the first time they face him as the true centerpiece of the Wildcat program.

Boo Buie

Northwestern’s second-leading scorer has taken a significant leap of his own in his third season with the Wildcats. Six-foot-2 guard Boo Buie’s 15.3 points per game are five more than he averaged as a sophomore. Buie leads the Wildcats with an average of 5.8 assists per game, and that figure also paces the entire Big Ten. Buie’s 39.5 percent field-goal rate leaves something to be desired, but the New York native is one of Northwestern’s most important players without a doubt.

Chase Audige

After missing the first seven games of the season due to injury, Northwestern’s 2020-21 leading scorer has gotten back into the mix over the last five contests. Audige averaged 12.3 points per game a year ago, but hasn’t quite been able to equal that output since his return. The 6-foot-4 wing is putting up 10.2 points per game for the Wildcats, but his shooting percentages have suffered as he’s attempted to shake off some rust. Audige is shooting just 35.7 percent from the floor and 10.5 percent from the 3-point line so far. But when Audige does find his rhythm, his scoring ability is a huge lift for the Wildcats.

How It Plays Out

Line: Ohio State -7.5, O/U 140.0

Northwestern has taken strides from its 2020-21 iteration, and even that team managed to capture a win over the Buckeyes early in the year. But Ohio State's performance against Indiana was extremely uncharacteristic as far as shooting the ball is concerned, and I doubt the scarlet and gray will lay that kind of egg again at home. The Wildcats are plenty capable of making it another tough game for the Buckeyes, but I think Ohio State will come out on top.

Prediction: Ohio State 74, Northwestern 67

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