The Northwestern Wildcats are playing host to the Ohio State Buckeyes on Wednesday evening for the second to last game of the regular season. Bill Carmody’s team is standing at 17-11 for the season, and 7-9 in the Big Ten – good for 7th overall in conference. Over their last six meetings the Buckeyes lead 5-1, including an overtime battle in the Big Ten tournament last year. The last Northwestern victory occurred in Evanston on February 18th, 2009 by a score of 72-69.
Northwestern has never made the NCAA tournament in the history of their program. During the 2009-2010 campaign, the Wildcats put together a 20 win season that should have been enough to earn them their first bid. Surprisingly, they were denied entry and relegated to the NIT for the second year running. They again missed the tournament last season with a slightly less impressive 18 win season, but they were at least in the conversation.
The Wildcats find themselves in the conversation again this year. Sitting at 17 wins with two games left on the schedule, there is an outside chance that the ‘Cats could play their way into the tournament. Not surprisingly, many in the Big Ten find themselves rooting for Northwestern to make it into the field of 68 – though, of course, not at the expense of their own teams.
A lot of their recent success, and the reason that they’re consistently making post-season play, has to do with how Bill Carmody has them playing in Evanston. The Wildcats have been an incredibly difficult team to beat at home during the last few seasons, making Welsh-Ryan Arena a surprising intimidating building. You may recall last season when the Buckeyes, in their only meeting with Northwestern, escaped with a 58-57 victory after Northwestern missed a desperation half-court heave at the buzzer. That trend has continued into this season as a number of teams will attest.
In their 8 Big Ten home games so far this season the Pretty Kitties are 5-3 overall. Their wins include victories against: Penn State (68-56), Nebraska (84-74), Iowa (83-64), Minnesota (64-53), and most impressively Michigan State (81-74). But it’s their home losses that really tell the story. The Wildcats put up valiant fights against: Illinois (57-56), Purdue (58-56), and Michigan (67-55) in overtime. Some of these losses are not truly indicative of what this team can do, as they also took Michigan to overtime in Ann Arbor but fell by only two, and managed to defeat Illinois in Urbana-Champaign by four.
It’s hard to ignore senior forward John Shurna’s (6-9, 220) contribution to this program. His game has improved to the point that he now averages just over 20 points per game. There aren’t too many players that break that mark in College Basketball. In fact, Shurna is #15 in points per game overall, is one of only 18 players this season to average at least 20, and is one of only 6 forwards to reach the mark. He is a rare talent, and has to be treated as such.
Shurna’s partner in crime on this team is junior guard/forward Drew Crawford (6-5, 205), a significant second option for Northwestern. Over his career, Crawford has demonstrated a solid scorer’s touch. That’s especially true this season with him hitting 48.4% from the floor, and 41.4% from three. Drew has slowly learned to play within himself and in control, and he makes life difficult for opponents on both ends of the court.
|#32||L. Smith Jr.||23.966||5.793||46.8||55.2||39.2||4.655||2.0||1.034||0.103||1.897|
Not surprisingly, when the Buckeyes faced the Wildcats in Columbus to start the Big Ten season, Ohio State’s defense focused on Shurna and Crawford. OSU frustrated their ability to find good open looks, and ultimately forced Northwestern to try to find other options. Outside of their top two, who combined for only 24 points on 9-30 shooting, only sophomore guard JerShon Cobb (6-5, 200) managed to take more than 4 shots, hitting only 2-9 for six points.
The Buckeyes will have to play that kind of defense again this weekend, but it’s not the defense that is a concern. Ohio State has demonstrated consistently that their defense is one of the best in the nation – despite the occasional boneheaded mental lapse. It is obviously the offense that is having a big problem. The Bucks will need some big scoring from both the outside, and off the dribble drive, from all of the guards. More importantly, however, is for Sullinger to finally get going and truly play his style of game for the first time since near the start of Big Ten play.
If we see changes come to the mentality of this team tomorrow in Evanston, there’s a chance that good things will happen for this team. If, though, the team comes out as flat as they have during the last five games, things may not go so smoothly to end the season.
The Buckeyes play Northwestern on Wednesday, February 29th at 8:30 PM EST. You’ll be able to see that game on the Big Ten Network.