Ohio State will look to get back on the winning track when it hosts Northwestern on Saturday (12:15 p.m., ESPN Plus).
The No. 12 Buckeyes (18-4, 7-4 Big Ten) fell at Wisconsin on Wednesday, 78-73. The Wildcats (12-11, 4-7) are coming off a 63-47 loss at Illinois on Wednesday.
Northwestern has one of the top players in the Big Ten in forward Vedran Vukusic (6-8, Sr.). He’s an excellent shooter and averages 20.2 points and 3.4 rebounds per game.
The Wildcats have only one other player averaging in double digits: guard/forward Mohamed Hachad (6-4, Sr.) at 11.0 points per game.
In their only meeting last season, Ohio State defeated Northwestern, 65-52. The Wildcats led 51-43 late in the game, but the Buckeyes closed the game on a 22-1 run.
“Northwestern is a very good basketball team,” OSU coach Thad Matta said. “A unique basketball team with their style. I think a lot of times you get fooled that they are going to slow it down, but quite honestly they hurt us with transition up there last year. They’ve got an incredible player in Vukusic. I mean, wow, can he score the basketball. And their spacing; they can shoot the three. They take good care of the basketball. Their defense is unique with changing defenses and honestly it’s another challenge for this team because they’ve shown they can beat the best team in this league in Iowa.”
Vukusic recently injured his back, but Matta expects to see him on the floor against the Buckeyes.
“Yeah, I do expect him to play,” Matta said.
Ohio State has won 11 straight games against Northwestern, but Matta knows this could be a trap game for his team.
“Our guys know we had to go on a 22-1 run to win up there last year to close the game out,” he said. “And hopefully these guys have an understanding of what it takes to win. And I think we do. Down from Wednesday night’s loss and we know we could have played a heck of a lot better, especially defensively. The good thing for us is that kids love to play games and we get another opportunity (Saturday).”
Ohio State senior center Terence Dials is playing his best basketball of the season. He has recorded two consecutive double-doubles and is now averaging a team-best 14.6 points and 7.6 rebounds.
“Yeah, Terence has played well,” Matta said. “He’s done a great job of finishing around the basket. He’s rebounded the ball better. I think he’s establishing himself around the basket kind of like we’ve wanted him to all season and I couldn’t be more happy with the way he is playing right now.”
The Buckeyes are one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the country. Overall, they are 203 of 482 from long range for 42.1 percent, good for No. 2 in the nation.
“They’ve been (shooting well),” Matta said. “Like I told them, the offense is not the problem. The 3-point shooting was not the problem (against Wisconsin). I’ve got confidence that we can shoot the basketball. Just by percentages over 22 games, I’m comfortable with that.”
Matta was asked if there’s some danger in relying so much on the 3-point shot.
“Well, it’s part of what we do,” he said. “If they’re there, we want to take them. We don’t want to take bad shots. (Je’Kel Foster’s) first shot over (Brian) Butch the other night, I didn’t have a problem with it. The guy made 21 of his last (27) and I was kind of interested to see if he was hot again. But no, it’s a part of what we do. It’s not something where we go into a game and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to make 10 3-pointers.’ Or, ‘We’ve got to get 20 threes up.’ It’s just if they’re there, we’ll take them.”
Foster, Sullinger Looking For A Win
Foster, a 6-3 senior, leads the nation in 3-point percentage (51.6). He is one of only two players in the country that is shooting 50 percent or above from long range (among players with 2.5 attempts per game or more).
“I mean, it’s a great accomplishment,” Foster said. “I give thanks to the coaches for working with me. I’ve put in a lot of work, but I’ve got to credit the coaches for taking out the time to work with me.”
Foster, who is averaging 14.5 points and leads the Big Ten in steals with 55, says he is playing the best basketball of his life.
“Definitely,” he said. “I had a great offseason and our coaches did a great job of working with me on some things. We watched the games from last year on film to see my weaknesses or whatever and they worked with me on it and I’ve done a good job of bringing it to the court.”
But 51.6 percent from 3-point range? In a game where 40 percent is considered good, Foster is shooting off the charts. One of the reasons is that OSU shoots an inordinate amount of shots in practice. And the Buckeyes chart every one of them.
“A lot of it is repetition,” Foster said. “And my teammates do a good job of finding me. And they tell me to keep shooting even when I miss. So, just having that confidence makes it even easier to shoot those shots.”
Foster is also the leader of the team. He is one of four captains, but he seems to be the player that gets everyone going.
“I’ve been a leader my whole life,” Foster said. “And my teammates, I think they feed off me and the things I do. I just try and lead by playing great defense and just doing whatever I need to do to get them motivated.”
Foster grew up idolizing Michael Jordan and he wears the No. 23 in respect to the former Chicago Bulls star.
“Yeah, I think Michael Jordan might have been everybody’s idol,” Foster said. “He was a great player. Maybe the greatest player to ever play the game. Everybody loves Michael Jordan.”
Foster knows that beating Northwestern won’t be easy. It’s a game Ohio State should win, but the team is taking nothing for granted.
“We have to get ready to play Northwestern,” Foster said. “Northwestern is not a pushover. They are a Big Ten team and they are going to come in here ready to play. We’ve got to get up like we’re playing any other team in the Big Ten.”
* Senior forward J.J. Sullinger agreed with his teammate and says the Buckeyes cannot afford a letdown.
“This game is a must-win for us, man,” Sullinger said. “We’re looking at this as our biggest game of the season, just like every game from now on will be. They definitely have a different approach to the game. They play a different style. They do the back door, leg whips, they pass the ball, they drive the ball and kick it out and shoot threes. They all can shoot and have some prolific scorers on their team. It’s starts on the defensive end and we definitely have to play better than we did last game.”
Sullinger might guard Vukusic when he’s in the game.
“We know him pretty well,” Sullinger said. “We’ve played against him for three years now and he’s definitely an awesome scorer. He can score the ball extremely well. And his teammates look for him. They are probably one of the best passing teams in the Big Ten. They can pass the ball extremely well and they look for him and he gets open. And when he gets the ball he can create his own shot. He’s not just a catch-and-shoot player. So we definitely have to keep an eye on him.”
Sullinger has gone scoreless for two consecutive games and no one feels worse about it than him. But he is still averaging 9.3 points and 6.6 rebounds per game, and is shooting 51.4 percent from the floor, including 48.9 percent from 3-point range.
“The reason I’m shooting a good percentage is because I’m trying to shy away from bad shots,” Sullinger said. “I’m trying to take what the defense gives me and if the shot is not there, I’m not going to take it. I don’t want to force the issue.
“But I know I was too passive against Wisconsin. I don’t know why and I’ve been bashing myself in the head over it the past 24 or so hours. I’m definitely going to get my aggressiveness back on the offensive end of the floor.”
Matta Discusses Indiana Situation
With Indiana coach Mike Davis stepping down at the end of the season, of course everyone wants to know if Matta is interested in coaching the Hoosiers. He grew up an Indiana and Illinois fan.
Matta was asked about his name surfacing for the IU job.
“Well, I think this: I think it’s a tremendous compliment to our players and our staff that that would happen,” he said. “Just the job that these kids have done here. I’ll never comment on another job, or rumors, or speculation, or anything like that. But I think it’s a great compliment to the kids.”
A reporter asked if Matta was interested in the IU job or not.
“No,” he said. “It’s a situation, like I said, that I’m not going to comment on that. All I want is for us to play better defense.”
Matta was asked if he still thinks that the OSU job is the pinnacle for him.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “We’re sitting here at 18-4 and we’ve got five regular season games left. You’re in the daily grind of it all. I’m elated every day to wake up and come in here and coach this basketball team.”
Matta was also asked if the Jim O’Brien situation and the NCAA investigation ever gets brought up in practice.
“It doesn’t come up in practice,” he said. “The NCAA stuff wears on me. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that. But there’s nothing that I can control. And that’s the thing I continuously remind myself of every day when I wake up: We can’t control it and we’ve got to continue to control what we can and that is this team winning basketball games and playing better basketball.”
* The Buckeyes own a 105-44 (.705) advantage in games versus Northwestern in the all-time series, which includes an 11-game win streak in the series. The last Northwestern victory was a 70-62 triumph Feb. 21, 1998, in Evanston. Ohio State is 62-14 in Columbus against the Wildcats and 43-30 in Evanston. The Buckeyes have won the last 25 games played in Columbus against Northwestern. The last NU victory at Ohio State was Feb. 24, 1977, an 83-72 win. Ohio State is 28-2 against Northwestern when ranked in the AP Top 25.
* In addition to being No. 2 in the nation in 3-point field goal percentage, the Buckeyes are No. 8 nationally in field goal percentage (.491), and No. 6 in 3-pointers made per game (9.2).
* The Buckeyes find themselves leading the Big Ten in several areas heading into the week of Feb. 13. Ohio State is No. 1 in scoring offense (78.6 ppg.), field goal percentage (606-1,234/.491), 3-point field goal percentage. (203-482/.421), 3-point field goals made (9.23 pg.) and assist-to-turnover ratio (+1.26). In league games only, Ohio State is the leader in scoring offense (76.3 ppg.), scoring margin (+8.7 ppg.), field goal percentage (306-629/.486), 3-point field goal percentage (105-248/.423), 3-point field goal defense (56-184/.304), turnover margin (+2.45), 3-point field goals made (9.55 pg.) and assist-to-turnover ratio (+1.34).
* Dials has 787 career rebounds to become one of 12 Buckeyes to reach the 700 mark all-time. He is on pace to reach 832 career rebounds, which would place him at the No. 6 spot all-time and one of seven players to reach the 800 mark in career rebounds. There are four players with 900 or more boards in Ohio State history led by Jerry Lucas (1960-62) with 1,411, a total reached in just three seasons. Herb Williams (1978-81) is No. 2 with 1,111. Perry Carter (989, 1988-91) and Bill Hosket (910, 1966-68) are the only other two players to record 900 or more career rebounds. Hosket's total also was recorded in three years. Dials is seventh all-time behind No. 6 Dave Sorenson (1968-70, 819).
* Ohio State's roster contains three players who have scored 1,000 or more points in their collegiate careers. Dials, Ron Lewis and Sullinger all have reached the 1,000-point plateau. Dials' total stands at 1,399 points scored to date, good for the No. 19 spot on the all-time list at OSU. Lewis, who transferred to Ohio State with 877 points to his credit after two seasons at Bowling Green, has a career total of 1,138, which includes 261 scored as a Buckeye. Senior J.J. Sullinger has scored 1,091 career points. He played one season at Arkansas, scoring 273 points in 2001-02, and now is in his third year at Ohio State.