There’s a reason Ohio State’s ranked No. 1 and has yet to lose this season. Several, actually.
The Buckeyes (22-0) can hit shots from inside, outside or down low, don’t commit turnovers, hit the glass and don’t get into foul trouble, which allows coach Thad Matta to play his best six players extensively and not fret about who’s hot coming off the bench.
Yet, as Northwestern showed Saturday, even when the Buckeyes are hitting their shots and have their best players on the court, they’re still vulnerable.
You just have to slow them down.
Ohio State escaped with a 58-57 win against a Wildcats team that didn’t have leading scorer John Shurna due to a sprained ankle concussion. Yet Northwestern didn’t panic. In fact, it was downright deliberate. The 49-possession game was the second-slowest major conference game of the season, trailing only Notre Dame’s win at No. 2 Pitt on Monday.
The Wildcats slowed it down, hit the offensive glass (grabbing nearly half their misses) and weren’t afraid to shoot 3s (9 of 30). It almost worked. Maybe if Ohio State had gone cold (it shot 57 percent from the field), it might’ve marked Northwestern’s first-ever win against a No. 1 team.
“They’re going to get backdoor layups. They’re going to hit some 3s,” Matta said “But it’s in between of trying to wear them down a little bit. And fortunately we did that.”
Eventually the Buckeyes will lose. Here’s how.
Don’t allow them to get comfortable and hoist shots. Frustrate them by soaking the clock. Otherwise you end up road kill like Purdue. Every close Big Ten game thus far for Ohio State has been a creeper. A 73-68 win against Illinois? 65 possessions. Same goes for a three-point win vs. Penn State (57 possessions), a four-point win at Michigan (56 possessions) and a three-point win vs. Minnesota (65 possessions).
As noted, Matta doesn’t rely on a deep bench, so the Buckeyes are comfortable with a slow game. They average 66 possessions per game on the season, but are down to 63.5 during Big Ten play, slightly above the league average. The team that slows them down even more, hits their shots and keeps Ohio State off the boards wins. (For good measure, that team should hope Jared Sullinger gets the flu and that Jon Diebler turns in another 1-for-4 game. But that may be asking a bit much.)
And that’s Wisconsin.
The Big Ten’s slowest team (56.3 possessions per game) is also its most efficient on offense and has plenty of shooters, notably Jon Leuer and Jordan Taylor. Also, the Badgers are nearly unbeatable at home, winning 93 percent of their home games. (They’re not nearly as good on the road, evidenced by a loss at Penn State.)
So circle that Feb. 12 home game against Ohio State. It looms as the biggest obstacle to Ohio State’s unbeaten regular season.
And the Buckeyes’ chance at a little history.
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