This is a very tough game for Northwestern to have to open the Big Ten season with this year. However, it does also present a significant opportunity. If Northwestern were to win the game, and I know that’s a big if, they would basically have to play just average the rest of the season to ensure an NCAA Tournament bid. Obviously, pulling off an upset of the #2 team in the nation which features multiple preseason All-Big Ten and All-American picks isn’t the easy way into the NCAA Tournament, but its worth noting the possibility.
Ohio State’s roster is so full of talent that it is almost ridiculous to expect anybody in the Big Ten to beat them. Preseason National Player of the Year Jared Sullinger headlines the OSU front court which also features athletic forward Deshaun Thomas who has stepped up his game this season especially in the contests which Sullinger sat out with an injured back. The Ohio State backcourt features two players listed amongst the top-25 nationally in the preseason in guards Aaron Kraft and William Buford. Kraft is the defensive stopper who while not a great shooter (30% from three) does tend to impact the game on defense in getting steals and handling the ball very well with a nearly 3-to-1 assist to turnover ratio. Buford is more of scoring threat at 15.8 ppg and making 37% of his threes. He’s also a nice athlete that can get to the hoop when he needs to do so. These two will present a major challenge for NU’s backcourt of Dave Sobolewski and Reggie Hearn. If he’s closer to 100% look for more action from JerShon Cobb to at least try and even out the athletic skill battle.
NU’s front court seemingly is the their strong point with Drew Crawford and John Shurna, but when you stack it up against Sullinger and Thomas it looks more average. Obviously, neither Shurna nor Crawford will battle Sullinger one on one. That’ll be the job of Luka Mirkovic and Davide Curletti who I actually think played Sullinger about as well as they could have last year, but the result was still 20 points and 18 rebounds for Sullinger when the teams met in the Big Ten Tournament. Those 20 points were mostly on free throws, though as Sullinger only made two field goals. Nevertheless, if NU can’t keep Sulinger and Thomas at least somewhat off the glass they can’t win unless they shoot a ridiculous percentage from three point range. To do that Shurna needs to have a big game and he also has to do a good job containing the athletic Thomas and not committing fouls.
Last year Northwestern used mostly a switching man to man defense versus Ohio State. However, I think last year’s Buckeyes were better shooters. I could see NU be successful with the 1-3-1 zone this year. It’ll clog the paint and may slow the game down. NU has to slow this game way down compared to the Creighton game which at times was a little too fast. I suspect NU will do this and that’ll help them for about 30 minutes before Ohio State pulls away. I predict: Ohio State, 63 Northwestern, 50