Fatigue, rust and slumps showed in each of the Buckeyes’ last two games following their return from a three-plus week layoff due to COVID-19.
No. 13 Ohio State (9-3, 3-1 Big Ten) will play its first home game in nearly a month Sunday when Northwestern (8-4, 1-2 Big Ten) comes to Columbus.
Since losing 67-51 at Indiana Thursday, senior forward Justin Ahrens said the Buckeyes approached practice this weekend with a focus on moving forward. He said “losing hurts nobody as much as it hurts us” ahead of matching up against the Wildcats.
“We definitely have a hunger right now and a drive because losing sucks,” Ahrens said. “None of us want to lose at all.”
Northwestern dropped its last two Big Ten ballgames to then-No. 10 Michigan State and Penn State where the Wildcats held halftime leads in both.
The Wildcats are the Big Ten’s fourth-highest scoring offense, averaging 77.3 points per game, in addition to owning the conference’s second-best scoring defense, holding opponents to 62.9 points per outing.
Ahrens said the Wildcats do well getting up and down the court, playing at a pace other teams must match.
“I think they’re one of the fastest-playing teams in the Big Ten right now,” Ahrens said. “They’re a team that can get rolling pretty quick if they see the ball go through the hoop, just like any team.”
Senior forward Pete Nance — an Akron, Ohio, native — leads Northwestern in both scoring and rebounds, averaging 15.9 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. The 6-foot-10 Wildcat is shooting 50.3 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from distance.
Three other Wildcats also average double figures, including junior guard Boo Buie with 15.3 points. Ahrens said the Buckeyes’ biggest key will be limiting Northwestern in transition and using Ohio State’s half-court defense to force stops.
“I think getting rebounds, not letting them get second-look opportunities,” Ahrens said. “Stopping the transition looks and getting rebounds, and I think we’ll be in good position to win.”
Defense has been a target area of improvement all season for Ahrens. The captain has earned the trust of the Buckeyes’ coaching staff, starting all 12 games and averaging 27.5 minutes per game.
Ahrens said he feels highly about the way he’s began the 2021 season, noting that he’s got to take a “working mentality” each day going forward to reach where he wants to be.
“I feel like this is one of the best starts I’ve had to a season in my career,” Ahrens said. “I know I can be a lot better. I’m not playing anywhere near my best ball yet.”
Junior forward E.J. Liddell hasn’t quite returned to the form he held before Ohio State’s pause, however. He’s shot 19.2 percent from the field over the last two games despite maintaining his 23-game streak of double-digit scoring.
Ahrens — who averages 8.2 points on 39.4 percent shooting — said it’s “on us” as a team to help create open looks for Ohio State’s leading scorer, who typically has to fight through double and triple teams from opposing defenses.
The Buckeyes, however, have seen production from freshman guard Malaki Branham over their last two games, leading the team in scoring both at Nebraska and Indiana by recording 35 and 13 points, respectively. Ahrens said Branham has the mindset and skill set for consistent production.
“He’s got all the tools. He’s just a smooth player. The game almost looks easy for him at times,” Ahrens said. “He’s definitely going to be a star one day. You can see it in him right now.”
During Sunday’s game, concessions will be closed at The Schottenstein Center. Water will be available for fans.
Head coach Chris Holtmann said the sales shutdown represents another protocol put in place by the university to contain the pandemic.
“It can be a frustrating thing,” Holtmann said. “Yet, at the same time, I think you just hope that the numbers continue to go down and we’re able to get back to a regular environment at home.”
Ohio State and Northwestern will tip off at 5:30 p.m. Sunday. Big Ten Network will broadcast.