Northwestern plays Ohio State on Saturday at 5PM in Evanston in front of a sold-out Welsh-Ryan Arena and a national television audience on ESPN2. It is arguably the best chance in the history of Northwestern basketball (major sports?) for the Wildcats to get a win which will define their program and gain them respect nationally, locally, and within their own fan base and community. It is also a game which features some of the longest odds against NU in a very long time. Not only are the Wildcats massive underdogs to the #1 ranked and undefeated Buckeyes, but their best player is hurt and many in their fan base are actively speculating about a future for the team which doesn’t include Head Coach Bill Carmody, despite the fact the coach just recently inked a contract extension. The reason for such speculation is that NU has struggled in recent big games and while their 13-7 record is eye test worthy from the outside, those of us inside NU fandom know that this team’s failure to meet high expectations for the second straight season has become frustrating beyond belief. Now, though, the schedule makers have given NU and their coach a chance at redemption. Sure, the odds of a win seem astronomical, but this is the chance that the Wildcats have been given so they might as well embrace the opportunity and give the most effort they ever have.
Looking at the numbers this isn’t a matchup which offers much hope for NU. Yes, Ohio State has had several close calls, but they just annihilated a Purdue team which handed NU a double-digit defeat. Making matters worse, Ohio State’s strengths are Northwestern’s weaknesses and NU’s limited strengths don’t seem enough to counter. For example, Ohio State’s inside game led by possible Big Ten Player of the Year Jared Sullinger (17.8ppg, 10.0rpg, 57.6%fg) and Dallas Lauderdale (4.6ppg. 4.0rpg, 18.4 minutes a game) give the Buckeyes two big bodies that can rebound, play defense, and score inside. How NU will stop these two with Luka Mirkovic and Davide Curletti is anybody’s guess. Some might suggest NU play 1-3-1 to try and deny those guys the ball, but if they get the ball they’ll score with ridiculous ease over Juice Thompson. Plus, Ohio State rarely turns the ball over and as a team makes 41% of their threes. NU also may be at a disadvantage because leading scorer John Shurna might be out with a concussion. Not only does that take one of NU’s best weapons off the court, but at least at 6-8 Shurna could possibly get in the way of OSU’s big guys inside. If NU has to go with 6-6 Mike Capocci against Lauderdale, Sullinger, or DeShaun Thomas the game could become a layup drill for Ohio State. Obviously, NU’s perimeter players need to pressure the ball with intensity to prevent easy post feeds. This will take a major concentrated effort from a number of players who are much too often extremely passive on defense.
On offense Northwestern will need to revert a more traditional Princeton style of play. NU can’t try to score 90 points in this game. They never will. They need to try to score 50 and somehow try to hold Ohio State in the 40s. That seems very difficult, but NU has in the past shown the ability to pass the ball around without turning in over for most of the shot clock and still get a decent shot. That needs to be the plan on Saturday. If NU shoots the ball with less than 10 seconds on the shot clock every time, Ohio State will also have less offensive possessions and each mistake will become more critical. Of course, NU needs every close shot to fall in that scenario in comparison to what happened Wednesday at Minnesota. That’s important because if NU wins this game it’ll be more because of a psychological advantage than a physical advantage. NU’s players need to believe they have a chance and somehow NU needs to get Ohio State to start to panic and being to think, “Oh crap! We’re the number 1 team in America and we might lose to Northwestern.” If NU gets the Buckeyes thinking that way in raises the odds of Buckeye mistakes. That’s how lesser teams in the NCAA tournament pull upsets. They start to get the big guys thinking the wrong way and an athlete who is worried about failure is usually better terrible.
A sold out Welsh-Ryan should provide a great atmosphere as long as NU doesn’t get blown away early. I look forward to seeing the crowd. Obviously, if this game were played 100 times Ohio State would probably win more than 90 of those matchups. Maybe 99 of them. But the fact is this game is only going to be played once and all Northwestern has to do is have enough confidence, hustle, fearlessness, and luck to win that one. Is it likely? Not at all. Is it impossible? No. Do I think it will happen? Well, no, but I believe it could happen and that’s why I’ll be as hyped as ever come Saturday at 5PM. I predict: Ohio State, 69 Northwestern, 51