Ohio State hits the road to take on Northwestern Saturday at 12:17 p.m.
The Buckeyes (13-7, 2-4) snapped their four-game losing streak with a 68-62 win over Penn State Wednesday.
The Wildcats (9-9, 2-4) shocked Iowa 75-74 Wednesday on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by senior guard Michael Jenkins (something about that name and clutch plays).
“Yeah, huge win for them,” OSU coach Thad Matta said. “I think it shows the type of team they are. Down as much as they were and come back and win the thing in overtime, that’s a great win for Northwestern. A top 25 win.”
Northwestern has one of the top players in the conference in 6-8 junior forward Vedran Vukusic. He averages 17.7 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game.
Junior center Mike Thompson is averaging 11.2 points and 5.1 rebounds. The 6-10 Duke transfer was recently suspended for two games, but returned for the Iowa game and played off the bench.
Junior point guard T.J. Parker – the brother of Tony Parker of the San Antonio Spurs – is averaging 10.1 points and 2.5 assists.
Rounding out the starting five are 6-8 senior forward Davor Duvancic (7.6 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 2.5 apg) and 6-4 junior guard Mohamad Hachad (7.0 ppg, 4.1 rpg).
The top players off the bench are 6-5 sophomore guard Tim Doyle (4.8 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 2.8 apg) and the 5-9 Jenkins (3.7 ppg).
Northwestern coach Bill Carmody is a former coach at Princeton and the Wildcats use a slow-down style.
“Patience offensively and defensively is the key,” Matta said. “They’re a team that makes you guard them. What great teams do – whenever you play against a great team – they’ll exploit a weak defender. You don’t want to be that guy. You’ve got to stay in your stance and you’ve got to have great awareness and a vision of not only what is happening, but what is going to happen. I think that is very evident when you play a team like Northwestern.
“Towson State also ran the quote, unquote Princeton offense against us early in the year and we did a pretty good job defending it. Obviously Northwestern has better players than Towson State and they probably run it more effectively. You’ve got to go up there and play with great toughness, great passion and know that each possession is going to be a war.”
Ohio State has struggled on the road this season – especially in conference play. Northwestern used to be an easy place to win. But no longer.
“I think it’s the competition level,” Matta said of his team’s road woes. “I think the Big Ten is strong from top to bottom this year. I think any time – I don’t care what league you’re in – whenever you go on the road, it’s tough. You’ve got to overcome that and do what you do and take the crowd out of it and play your best basketball. It’s kind of a toughness issue.”
Sophomore forward Ivan Harris has struggled recently, while junior forward Matt Sylvester has played fairly well. Matta was asked if he has considered making a change in the starting lineup at the four spot.
“No, because I haven’t thought about it,” he said. “Should I?”
A reporter commented that Sylvester has played well.
“No, he has,” Matta said. “And one thing I was concerned about was getting off to a fast start because we hadn’t got off to a good start lately and against Penn State we did. I think we’ll probably stay the same.”
Another problem for the Bucks is the lack of scoring from freshman guard Jamar Butler. He was Ohio’s Mr. Basketball last year and averaged 31.6 points per game. However, he is averaging just 2.8 points at OSU and has not made a field goal during Big Ten play.
“Honestly, I’m not even concerned with his offense,” Matta said. “I think he’s playing great defense and he’s really giving us a lift. I want him to knock a shot down just to get him feeling good about himself. But as long as he continues to come in and defend the way he is, I’m pretty pleased with that.”
Butler is still a young player and the scoring will likely come eventually.
“No, eventually it will, yeah,” Matta said. “And I think maybe it is a little bit of (a lack of) confidence or whatever. But we’re not at the stage of the season where we can just hand out confidence. I mean, you’ve got to get that yourself and play through it.”
* One OSU player who is showing plenty of confidence is junior guard Je’Kel Foster. He scored 14 points in the Penn State win and is averaging 8.0 points per game overall.
Foster and Butler are often on the floor together in Matta’s substitution pattern. Foster was asked why Butler is having such a tough time scoring.
“Jamar Butler, he brings so many other things to the table other than scoring,” Foster said. “He’s just a freshman. We’re looking for him to play a big role and once he calms down, he’ll be all right. He’s playing good. He’s leading us in other ways than putting it in the hole. He gets us into the offense and he plays good defense.”
Foster said OSU approached the Penn State game as a must-win situation.
“We knew that we had to step up,” he said. “We had lost too many games in a row and if you’ve seen all the games we’ve lost, it’s been real close coming down to the stretch of the game. Pretty much the whole team had a meeting last week that we need to tighten it up and start finishing games at the end.”
Foster was 4 of 5 from 3-point range against PSU and is now shooting a team-best 46 percent from downtown. He has a smooth release and was on fire against the Nittany Lions.
“I just fed off of my teammates and knocked some wide open shots down,” Foster said. “That’s what they were expecting me to do, so I just stepped up to the plate and knocked them down.”
Foster is happy with the way the season is going for him personally.
“My expectations coming into the year were about the same as what is happening,” he said. “I’m getting a lot of minutes and I’m playing pretty good. That’s what I was expecting. I’m pleased with the way things are going. We couldn’t have lost so many games, but I think we’re on the right path now.”
Foster, who played last season at Chipola Junior College, knew it would be a different brand of basketball in the Big Ten. A better, more physical brand.
“Yeah, this is about what I expected,” he said. “It’s real physical and the level of play is tremendous. It’s outstanding. It’s a big step up. Of course coming from JUCO to the Big Ten, you have better players and bigger players, stronger players. You have to bring more to the table than you would have at a junior college game.”
Matta has often praised Foster’s practice habits. He says he is one of the most intense, hardest-workers on the team.
“I’ve just been playing hard every day in practice, like I always do,” Foster said. “I try and lead everybody and try and get everybody to want to play hard and play together. Just let everybody know that if we play together we can win the games that people think we can win.”
Even during the losing streak, Foster says Matta stayed positive with the team. He definitely had a few chances to chew them out, but chose not to.
“Coach Matta is a different kind of coach,” Foster said. “He’s the kind of coach that whatever he says, he is always positive. He never speaks any negatives about any of his players. He’s just a good guy.”
* Junior forward J.J. Sullinger knows that Northwestern is no longer an easy place to win. The Wildcats have been decent since Carmody took over and this might be the best team he’s had.
“Northwestern is a pretty good team,” Sullinger said. “They’re a dangerous team. They play a little bit different than most teams in the Big 10. They’ve got a good group of guys and they’re coming off a big win, as we are too. So, the game on Saturday is going to be about who lands the first punch and who withstands each other’s run.”
Sullinger knows NU will try and slow the pace down, but he says OSU needs to prevent that from happening.
“It’s always a different kind of game with them,” he said. “They do that Princeton-style offense and a lot of back door cuts. Like always, we’ve just got to try and limit their open looks and limit their easy baskets. And that all starts with defensive awareness.
“And when we do get defensive stops, it will be that much more important to get off in transition and run the floor so we can set the tone, rather than them set the tone.”
Sullinger will matched up with Vukusic for much of the game.
“He’s a 6-8 guy that can shoot the ball,” Sullinger said. “Inside, outside guy. With their lineup, he is playing some at the three. I just have to keep doing what I’ve always done. Just try and keep him in front and just try and limit his open looks and if he tries to take me down low, just do the best that I can, along with everybody else around me. We don’t guard people one-on-one. We guard people five-on-one. That’s always been Coach Matta’s thing. Team defense rather than individual defense.”
Sullinger seems to record another alley-oop dunk each game. One of his teammates gives him a backscreen, the ball is lobbed up and he does the rest.
“It’s extremely hard to guard,” Sullinger said. “Because they are kind of messed-up if they do, messed-up if they don’t, know what I mean? We kind of do it a couple times just to see if they’ll bite on it. And when the time is right, we get it done. Tony (Stockman) and Je’Kel make good reads. If it’s there, it’s there. If it’s not, it’s not.”
Sullinger skied for an offensive rebound well above the rim against Penn State. He has the best leaping ability on the team by far. But what exactly is his vertical?
“We actually haven’t measured it recently, but I actually have a 37-inch vertical,” he said. “Coach Glass, our strength and conditioning coach, he works real hard with us in the offseason and tries to get those as high as they possibly can.”
Thirty-seven inches? Is that all? So, Sullinger is saying that former OSU cornerback Dustin Fox can out-jump him? Fox has a 40-inch vertical.
“I’ve seen him play before man,” Sullinger said. “We’ve actually played a couple times at the Jesse Owens Recreation Center. That man can jump. He can jump real high. He probably has me by a little bit, but I’m a little bit longer, so we might even up at the end.”