Clinging to hope, Buckeyes challenge Wildcats

Still with a shot at winning the Big Ten Conference's regular-season title, the 16th-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes hit the road for the first of two straight bouts, as they pay a visit to the Northwestern Wildcats on Thursday night.

Including this one, Ohio State has just three games remaining in the regular season, and with a league ledger of 10-5, it currently trails first-place Indiana (12-3) by two games. The Buckeyes play at Indiana next Tuesday, before closing out the campaign at home versus Illinois on March 10. OSU has won two straight, and three of its last four to improve to 20-7 overall, and the team is hoping to add to its less-than-stellar road record (3-5) with a win in this contest. The Buckeyes' took care of visiting Michigan State in their last outing, 68-60, this past Sunday.

Northwestern hasn't had anywhere near the success as its counterpart tonight, the team logging a 13-15 overall mark, which includes a 4-11 record in Big Ten action. The Wildcats are tied for 10th place in the conference standings, and they are hoping to snap a five-game losing streak and even their home record at 9-9 with an upset of the Buckeyes.

These two teams met in Columbus on Valentine's Day, and Ohio State prevailed in a 69-59 final. With that win, the Buckeyes increased their lead in the all- time series to 112-45. OSU has won the last seven meetings now, and 18 of the last 19 overall.

While sporting talent across the roster, Ohio State goes pretty much as star forward Deshaun Thomas goes. A serious contender for Big Ten Player of the Year honors, as well as All-America status, Thomas leads the conference in scoring at 19.9 ppg, and he adds 6.1 rpg, while shooting 37.3 percent from 3- point range, 44.5 percent from the field overall, and an astounding 84.5 percent from the foul line. No other OSU player averages double figures in the scoring column, although guards Lenzelle Smith, Jr. (9.7 ppg, 4.9 rpg) and Aaron Craft (9.6 ppg, 4.4 apg, 3.7 rpg) are close. As a team, the Buckeyes are putting up 70.6 ppg while permitting only 59.1 ppg, and they own favorable margins as well in both rebounding (+3.8) and turnovers (+2.4). Craft was high man for OSU in the recent win over Michigan State, going 7-of-12 from the floor and 7-of-8 at the charity stripe in tallying 21 points. He handed out six assists as well, but the team only had eight helpers in the game. Thomas tacked on 14 points and seven rebounds, but he was off the mark with his shot, going just 4-of-16 from the field. Evan Ravenel came off the bench to chip in 10 points for the Buckeyes, who made good on 44 percent of their total shots, despite missing 13 of their 18 3-point tries. Ohio State committed only nine turnovers, while goading the Spartans into 14, and MSU converted only 2-of-11 attempts from downtown.

Northwestern has really struggled to put points on the board this season, coming in with an average of 61.1 ppg behind typical shooting efforts of 40.2 percent overall, 34.2 percent from 3-point range, and 66.2 percent from the free throw line. Fortunately, the team's defensive effort has allowed it hang with at least some of the teams on its schedule, its foes averaging just 63.0 ppg despite laying claim to a +6.7 edge on the glass. The Wildcats feature two active double-digit scorers in Reggie Hearn (13.7 ppg, 4.4 rpg) and Dave Sobolewski (10.2 ppg, 3.9 apg), but no one hit that mark in a 74-43 loss at Purdue last Sunday. Tre Demps came closest with his nine points, as the Wildcats shot a horrific 28.6 percent from the floor, hitting a mere 4-of-18 long-range launches in the process. Meanwhile, the Boilermakers made good on 52.9 percent of their total shots, hitting seven treys, and they more than doubled NU's effort on the boards, 48-23.