After a promising start to the 2015-16 season in non-conference play, the Northwestern Wildcats have struggled so far in their Big Ten slate of games, having lost three of their four conference games with the most recent defeat coming at Michigan State this Sunday by the score of 74-51.
Joe McKeown’s team, which started Big Ten play an uneven 4-5 last year before rolling off an eight-game winning streak in February, has lost its last two games — to Purdue and the Spartans — by double digits thanks to major scoring droughts in the second half of both contests. In East Lansing three days ago, the Wildcats scored just 27 points in the final two quarters while they posted a slightly better 40 points last Thursday against the Boilermakers.
But, as our own Ben Goren wrote in a film study post from Monday, the team’s big problem has been its personnel, which seems to be built to constantly play small except at the center position, which has been a revolving door of inconsistent options all season. Those struggles, highlighted in the team’s two disappointing blowout losses in the past week, will be put to the test on Thursday night in Evanston as the No. 5 Ohio State Buckeyes come to town.
Ohio State, which has only lost to the current No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 teams in the AP Top 25 rankings (Connecticut, Notre Dame and South Carolina) this season, is an undefeated 4-0 in Big Ten play with impressive wins over Michigan State and Maryland (and Texas A&M in nonconference play).
The Buckeyes are led by sophomore Kelsey Mitchell, who, at 25 points per game, is the second-leading scorer in the entire country, just behind another Kelsey, Kelsey Plum, of Washington (27.3 points). Mitchell, a guard, could be defended by Northwestern’s Ashley Deary, who leads Division 1 in steals. That could work out well for the Wildcats, as Mitchell’s only real weakness is turnovers, as she commits almost three per game.
There isn’t much of a offensive dropoff after Mitchell, though, as senior guard Ameryst Alston averages almost 19 points a clip on over 47 percent shooting from the field. The Buckeyes have four double-digit point scorers in all — Shayla Cooper (12.1 points and 8.9 rebounds per) and Alexa Hart (10.9 points and 6.3 rebounds) — and also boast a familiar name in their starting lineup, Cait Craft, who is the younger sister of former Ohio State men’s basketball standout Aaron Craft, who tortured Northwestern, and the rest of the Big Ten during his four years in Columbus.
Ohio State’s spread-out offensive attack could be a problem for Northwestern, which doesn’t have a very deep roster and will be challenged by the Buckeyes’ athleticism. If the Wildcats continue to, as McKeown said after the Purdue game, “do things that are just not like us” and don’t play with their top level of effort, this will be their third-straight loss and will send them even further out of the Top 25. But, if they can somewhat limit Mitchell’s scoring by forcing her to commit turnovers, they’ll have a chance.