Men’s Basketball: What to Watch For: Northwestern is looking to avenge January defeat to Ohio State in Columbus


Daily file photo by Angeli Mittal

Graduate student forward Tydus Verhoeven passes the ball to sophomore guard Brooks Barnhizer in the post.

Alex Cervantes, Senior Staffer

At the turn of the year, Ohio State waltzed into Welsh-Ryan Arena and comfortably beat Northwestern 73-57. It was a dismal offensive showing from the Wildcats, who shot 28.4% from the field, 29% from distance and 58.8% from the charity stripe in the loss.

However, the two teams’ paths have diverged since that Jan. 1 game. 

NU has been one of the Big Ten’s biggest surprises, currently sitting in a three-way tie for fifth place. The Buckeyes, meanwhile, have also shocked folks, though in large part due to an incredible downward spiral that’s placed them 12th in the conference standings. Round two now sees Chris Collins’ bunch traveling to Columbus on Thursday to face Ohio State.

Here are three questions to keep in mind as the Cats take on the Buckeyes.

  1. Will the NU frontcourt produce against Ohio State this time around?

When these two teams met on Jan. 1, the Cats’ frontcourt — senior forward Robbie Beran, junior center Matthew Nicholson and graduate student forward Tydus Verhoeven — combined for more personal fouls than points.

The trio shot 2-of-16 from the field. Nicholson was particularly troubled around the basket, missing all of his attempts from the field and from the free throw line.

Following the defeat, Collins said that the trio has to be more “opportunistic” offensively, especially with the good looks at the rim. 

“We have to continue to get them the ball in the right spot,” Collins said in January. “So when they get it, they’ll be able to finish in the future.”

NU’s offense can be fairly one-dimensional, with much of the production resting on the shoulders of redshirt senior guard Chase Audige, senior guard Boo Buie and their ability to create off the bounce. If an opponent takes one or both of them away, they likely win.

It’s a hefty load to carry, but involving the frontcourt offensively can lift some of that weight. For Beran, catch-and-shoot opportunities from the wing and corner are a must, while Nicholson needs to convert lobs and second-chance looks at the rim. Similarly to Nicholson, Verhoeven needs to be a force on the offensive glass and get touches that way.

The Cats don’t need otherworldly production from their frontcourt, but they will need more than eight points in Columbus if they want to leave with a victory.

  1. Amid slide, can Ohio State get back on track with a sweep against the Cats?

Following their dismantling of NU, the Buckeyes looked like a well-tuned machine. They were 10-3 overall and 2-0 in the Big Ten. Advanced analytics and metrics adored Ohio State:  Bart Torvik’s rankings had coach Chris Holtmann’s team as the seventh-best team in the country, one spot behind the current No. 1 team nationally, Purdue.

But oh, how the tables have turned.

Since then, the Buckeyes have dropped nine of their last 10 games and are currently amid a four-game skid. Granted, all but one of those defeats was by single digits, though that provides little in the way of comfort.

At present, the Buckeyes have more questions than answers. Holtmann’s offense is in a slump, having eclipsed 73 points just once in January and February. That could all turn around against the Cats. 

Mired by its own offensive struggles, NU’s defense took a hit and Ohio State took full advantage in their first tilt, racing out to a 35-17 halftime advantage. Four Buckeye starters finished with 11 or more points.

Maybe another compelling first-half performance against the Cats is just the medicine the doctor ordered for Holtmann and company. 

  1. Can Collins get Ty Berry involved once more?

From Dec. 29, 2022, to Jan. 11, 2023, junior guard Ty Berry rattled off five consecutive games of at least 11 points. Since then, Berry has hit double-digit scoring just once: his career-high 26 points against Nebraska. He has just 12 points over the last four games.

After the loss to Michigan, Collins said he needed to get Beran and Berry more touches offensively.

But in the following game against Wisconsin, Berry saw just 16 minutes of action and failed to hit a shot on four attempts. The decrease in playing time was a direct result of impressive production off the bench by sophomore guard Brooks Barnhizer and freshman forward Nick Martinelli, who were huge components in NU’s win. 

Still, Berry’s ability to space the floor provides another dimension to this offense. He has to hit shots — that’s a no-brainer — but he also needs to receive a greater degree of volume. He’s attempted more than six shots in just one of the last seven games. 

If the Cats are truly going to compete within the upper echelon of the Big Ten, Berry’s shooting can be instrumental in that effort, and Collins should try to get him more looks against the Buckeyes.

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Twitter: @CervantesPAlex 

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