The No. 9 Buckeyes (21-4, 10-4 Big Ten) are playing for the 18th conference title in school history and the first since 2002. Ohio State has won 10 outright league titles, and seven shared championships. It has not won an outright conference crown since 1992.
The Wildcats (13-13, 5-9) gave the Buckeyes all they could handle in their previous meeting this season as OSU escaped with a 61-52 victory on Feb. 18 in Columbus.
Northwestern has a pair of productive players that always seem to give OSU fits. Forwards Vedran Vukusic (6-8, Sr.) and Mohamed Hachad (6-5, Sr.) average 19.6 points and 11.7 points, respectively. The sharp-shooting Vukusic is the leading scorer in the Big Ten.
Ohio State center Terence Dials (6-9, Sr.) is the reigning Big Ten Player of the Week and has recorded five consecutive double-doubles. Dials leads OSU in scoring (15.2 ppg) and rebounding (8.2 rpg).
Ohio State head coach Thad Matta usually likes the underdog role. The "us-against-the-world" mentality. But now it's his team that leads the pack in the Big Ten. However, he thinks his players are handling the success well.
"I think they've been great," Matta said. "I think they know that we've got a lot of work still to do. I think they have a great understanding and respect for what we have to do this week, starting with Northwestern. They know what they've done to teams up there. They know the style of play they have and the capabilities of their players. Our guys I think have a tremendous focus on what we need to do."
"I think if you look at the Big Ten this year and the home court dominance, it's amazing," Matta said. "The good thing for us is after the completion of Wednesday night's game, we don't have to go on the road in the Big Ten anymore. Right now sitting at 4-3, a drastic improvement over last year when we went 2-6. To be in this situation – obviously we've had to go in and win in some hostile environments and this will be no different (Wednesday) night."
Very few prognosticators picked the Buckeyes to finish among the top three of the Big Ten, let alone to be conference champions. Matta was asked if OSU's success has surprised him at all.
"It does a little bit, but I think it's a tribute to these kids and the job that they've done to put ourselves in this position," he said. "I don't know if I've ever had a team that has worked this hard and this long. I think it's strictly a tribute to them. But on the same token, I think they know it's not done yet. We've got to keep them focused and we've got to continue to play hard and we've got to continue to play better. I know this: For us to have a chance to win on Wednesday, we need to play better than we did on Saturday (a 64-54 win over Michigan)."
Matta says his team did not set any specific long term goals at the outset of the season. They did not dream of a Big Ten championship, or top seed in the NCAA Tournament.
"The goal for this team, honestly, we were short term all the way," Matta said. "As we are today. It's simply, just get better. And find ways through hard work and creativity with our offense and defense to just get better.
"We knew the Big Ten was going to be a tough conference and we had a tough non-conference schedule. So, the focus was on and is on just finding ways for us to get a little bit better. As we go to practice (Tuesday) hopefully we'll shoot a better percentage than we did (Monday). And our turnovers won't be as high, and we'll be able to guard the ball a little bit better. Quite honestly, that's about it."
Matta is pleased that his four seniors – Dials, Je'Kel Foster, J.J. Sullinger and Matt Sylvester – have a chance to go out as outright Big Ten champions if they beat Northwestern, and then Purdue in Columbus on Sunday.
Northwestern does a good job of slowing down the pace of its games. The Wildcats also mix up their defenses quite a bit and do a good job of guarding the perimeter.
"They play a lot of zone," Matta said. "They played a lot of 1-3-1 and would switch to 2-3. They did a lot of both in that game. Like we are, they are who they are. I expect to see that again."
Ohio State has an undermanned squad this year with just 10 scholarship players, three short of the maximum allowed by the NCAA. But OSU's bench has still been a strength of the team. Ron Lewis (6-4, Jr.) is averaging 11.9 points and is among the best sixth-men in the country. In addition, Ivan Harris (6-7, Jr.) and Matt Terwilliger (6-8, So.) have played well.
"The bench has proven that they can come in and do the job," Matta said. "And what we're looking for is consistency with it. Getting those guys to understand their role when they come in. Let's face it: They've played a major contribution to this team's success and we need it to continue."
One player who was seeing a decent amount of minutes in the early part of the year, but has since fallen out of favor with the coaching staff is guard Sylvester Mayes (6-2, Jr.).
Matta was asked if Mayes might contribute this week.
"I think he can," he said. "Sylvester is … I wouldn't say he's practiced real well. It's hard because we're not getting a lot of reps in practice. And the hard thing for him is Jamar (Butler), Je'Kel and Ron have really (played well). They're experienced and they're doing a heck of a job for us."
Sylvester has been bothered by a lower back strain, but the 6-7 forward should be able to play against Northwestern.
"Doing well," Matta said. "I think he can (make a difference). He's been moving well and hopefully we can have him (Wednesday) night."
Players Finally Getting Respect
For Ohio State's players, the lofty national ranking and perch atop the Big Ten feels good. They know that very few predicted them to do so well this season and they've enjoyed proving people wrong.
"Yeah, seriously," Dials said. "That was our motivation. (Matta) told us back in the preseason that we were picked like seventh in the Big Ten. Only the guys in our locker room thought we were better than that. And we knew we could compete. We knew we could compete at such a high level. It's a credit to (Matta) and the coaching staff and the players we have on this squad. … Now we're getting some national recognition. Which is surprising, but we're happy about it."
Added Foster: "That's the beauty of it. Nobody gave us a chance. But we believed in ourselves and this summer we worked hard."
Dials says that winning an outright league championship would be a nice springboard for the program going forward. No, he won't be here in future seasons, but he wants the best for Ohio State.
"We're trying to set the foundation for Coach Matta and the future of the Buckeye program," Dials said. "Coming in this year, nobody gave us a chance to do anything. Now that we're doing so well right now, people are jumping on the bandwagon. Which is great. We're glad to have a lot of fans. We just want to continue to do well."
Dials is playing the best basketball of his career. He is averaging 19.5 points and 12.5 rebounds over his last five games.
"I think I have a lot of motivation right now playing for a championship," he said. "Something I haven't had outright. We shared my freshman year. The feeling of being able to contribute more than I did my freshman year and having more of an impact on winning a championship is what is motivating me."
Dials was asked why he thinks he's playing better now, as opposed to the early stages of this season.
Ohio State's players know that Northwestern is a dangerous team and is very capable of beating OSU in Evanston.
"Yeah, it's definitely going to be easy to get up for this one," Dials said. "They're a difficult team to prepare for and we're going to be ready. We've added some things. (Wednesday) night I think we're going to be ready to play, especially with so much riding on the game."
Foster echoed those comments.
"They are very dangerous," he said. "They are a Big Ten team and we know we have to go in with the mindset of getting that win no matter what. They lead in the Big Ten in perimeter defense so we may have to find other ways to win the game."
Foster, who is averaging 13.6 points per game and leads the Big Ten with 61 steals, gave his keys to beating Northwestern.
"Toughness," he said. "We've just got to keep playing together like we've been doing. … It ain't time to breathe now. We have to get tough and believe in each other and believe in the system we have here at Ohio State."
Another huge key for Ohio State's success this season has been the steady play of Butler at the point. He is averaging 10 points, 4.8 assists, 3.2 rebounds, and owns an excellent plus-2.9 assist-to-turnover ratio. Butler is also shooting 45.8 percent from 3-point range, and a team-best 83.1 percent from the free throw line.
"I can't say enough about Jamar," Dials said. "He's been tough as nails and has just been a leader out there, even though he's one of the youngest guys on our squad. He's been playing great."
* A conference championship this year would give Matta his fourth league regular season title in a third Division I conference. Matta won both the regular season and conference tournament titles in the Midwestern Collegiate Conference (now the Horizon League) in 2001 while coaching his lone season at Butler, his alma mater. He then won both the regular season and tournament Atlantic 10 titles in his first year at Xavier in 2002. The Musketeers won the regular season title again in 2003 and the tournament championship in 2004. Matta was the coach of the year in both the MCC (2001) and A-10 (2002). He is a candidate for the same honor in the Big Ten this season.
* Dials' player of the week honor was the first of the year for him and third of his OSU career. The Buckeyes have earned the honor four times this season. Foster (twice) and Butler claimed the award earlier this year. Dials averaged 20.5 points and 10.5 rebounds in wins at No. 18 Michigan State and vs. Michigan last week. He also knocked down 18 of 28 field goals (.643) in helping the Buckeyes move to the No. 1 spot in the regular season conference standings heading into the road game at Northwestern.
* Dials has recorded 10-plus points and rebounds in each of the last five games, the longest double-double streak of his career. He scored 19 points and grabbed a career-high 16 boards vs. Illinois (2/12/06) to start the streak. He tallied 24 points and 11 boards at Wisconsin (2/15/06), had 14 points and 15 boards last vs. Northwestern (2/18/06) and then scored 19 points with 10 boards in the road win vs. Michigan State and 22 points and 11 rebounds vs. Michigan last week. He is averaging 19.5 points and 12.5 rebounds in the last five games. Dials has 16 career double-doubles and six this season. The last time an Ohio State player put together a streak of five or more consecutive double-doubles was during the 1985-86 season when Brad Sellers had a streak of nine-consecutive games with 10 or more points and rebounds.
* Foster is No. 2 nationally in 3-point shooting percentage (as of Feb. 20) with a minimum of 2.5 made per game. He averages 2.72 a contest with 68 makes in 144 attempts (.472). … As a team, the Buckeyes are No. 12 in scoring margin (+12.5 ppg.), No. 14 in field goal percentage (.482), No. 10 in 3-pointers made per game (8.84) and No. 7 in 3-point field goal percentage (.404).
* The Buckeyes own a 106-44 (.707) advantage in the 150 games played all-time versus Northwestern, which includes the current 12-game OSU win streak in the series. The last Northwestern victory was a 70-62 triumph Feb. 21, 1998 in Evanston. Ohio State is 63-14 in Columbus vs. the Wildcats and 43-30 in Evanston. The Buckeyes have won the last 26 games played in Columbus and the last five in Evanston, which is tied for the longest OSU road win streak in the series. Ohio State is 29-2 against Northwestern when ranked in the AP Top 25.