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What To Watch: OSU @ Northwestern

We have our preview and a prediction for Thursday’s game as No. 16 Ohio State visits Northwestern (7 p.m., ESPN2).

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In the video boards, we have comments from OSU coach Thad Matta (above) and players Sam Thompson and Amedeo Della Valle (below).

Here is our What To Watch feature for Thursday’s game against Northwestern:

Opponent: Northwestern

* Where: Welsh-Ryan Arena (capacity: 8,367); Evanston, Ill.

* Date, Time: Thursday, 7 p.m.

* TV: ESPN2 (Announcers: Joe Tessitore and Sean Farnham)

* 2012-13 Records: Ohio State, 20-7 overall, 10-5 Big Ten; Northwestern, 13-15 overall, 4-11 Big Ten

* Poll Rankings: Ohio State, 16th in the AP poll and 15th in the USA Today coaches poll; Northwestern, unranked.

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* RPI Rankings: Ohio State, 20th; Northwestern, 134th. (OSU is 4-6 against teams currently in the RPI top 25, 4-7 against teams in the top 50 and 6-7 against teams in the top 100. Northwestern is 1-6 against teams currently in the RPI top 25, 2-8 against teams in the top 50 and 3-12 against teams in the top 100.)

* Key Players (2012-13 Stats): Ohio State – F Deshaun Thomas, 6-7, jr., 19.9 ppg, 6.1 rpg; G Aaron Craft, 6-2, jr., 9.6 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 4.4 apg, 1.9 spg; G Lenzelle Smith Jr., 6-4, jr., 9.7 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 1.7 apg; F LaQuinton Ross, 6-8, so., 7.6 ppg, 3.0 rpg; C Amir Williams, 6-11, so., 4.3 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 1.7 bpg; F-C Evan Ravenel, 6-8, sr., 5.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg; F Sam Thompson, 6-7, so., 7.1 ppg, 3.3 rpg; G Shannon Scott, 6-2, so., 4.9 ppg, 3.7 apg, 1.7 spg. Northwestern – G Reggie Hearn, 6-4, sr., 13.7 ppg, 4.4 rpg; G Dave Sobolewski, 6-1, so., 10.2 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 3.9 apg; G Tre Demps, 6-2, fr., 7.2 ppg; C Alex Olah, 7-0, fr., 5.7 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 1.9 apg; F Kale Abrahamson, 6-7, fr., 4.6 ppg; G Alex Marcotullio, 6-3, sr., 4.4 ppg, 2.3 rpg; G-F Drew Crawford, 6-5, sr., 13.5 ppg, 4.6 rpg; F Jared Swopshire, 6-8, sr., 9.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg (Crawford and Swopshire are out for the year with injuries.)

* Quality Of Opponent: Deceptively dangerous despite the fact Northwestern has lost its last five games and seven of its last eight games.

One of these losses was at Ohio State on Feb. 14 (69-59). The Buckeyes needed a late 12-0 run to pull that game. Thomas led the way with 22 points and seven rebounds. Smith had 12 points, Thompson had 11 and Williams scored 10. Demps had 16 points and Abrahamson scored 13 for NU.

Since that loss at OSU, Northwestern has lost its last three games to Illinois, Wisconsin and Purdue by an average of 26.7 points. Nobody reached double figures in Sunday’s loss at Purdue (74-43). The Wildcats shot a dismal 28.6 percent in that loss.

NU coach Bill Carmody is starting three freshmen (Abrahamson, Olah and Demps), a sophomore (Sobolewski) and a senior (Hearn).

* OSU-Northwestern Series: Ohio State is 112-45 all-time against Northwestern, including 45-31 in Evanston. Including the win at OSU two weeks ago the Buckeyes have won the last seven games in the series, dating to a 2009 loss at Evanston (72-69).

OSU has won 24 of the last 25 games overall against NU. OSU is 35-2 all-time as a ranked team against NU. Over the last 15 years (since 1998), OSU is 10-1 at Evanston.

Shannon Scott vs. Northwestern in first meeting Feb. 14

Under Thad Matta (since 2004-05), OSU is 14-1 against Northwestern. Under Bill Carmody (since 2000-01), NU is 1-21 against OSU.

Last year, the teams met once in Evanston with OSU pulling out a 75-73 win on Jared Sullinger’s layup in the final seconds. Sullinger had 22 points and 18 rebounds, while Thomas had 19 points, Craft scored 14 and Smith had 12. Crawford led NU with 23 points, while John Shurna had 22.

* Fun Facts: Welsh-Ryan Arena has been the home of NU basketball since 1952. OSU played in the very first NCAA Final Four on the Northwestern campus in 1939, but that was played at Patten Gymnasium … OSU is 18-0 against unranked teams this season. Matta’s OSU teams are also 200-21 against unranked opponents. Over the last three years, OSU is 70-1 against unranked opponents with the lone loss at Illinois in January 2012 (79-74) … Ohio State is 3-5 this season in road games. That includes wins at Purdue, Penn State and Nebraska and losses at Duke, Illinois, Michigan State, Michigan and Wisconsin … Northwestern is 2-6 against AP top-25 teams this year with wins over No. 23 Illinois and No. 12 Minnesota and losses to No. 2 Michigan, No. 9 Minnesota, No. 1 Michigan, No. 13 Ohio State and No. 19 Wisconsin … Thomas was named to the midseason Naismith Awards College Player of the Year top 30 watch list. Thomas is 23rd all-time on OSU’s career scoring list with 1,433 points. Next up are Paul Ebert (22nd, 1,436 points), Bill Hosket (21st, 1,441 points) and David Lighty (20th, 1,458 points) … The win over Michigan State gave Matta a 20-win season for the ninth straight year at OSU and 13th season in his coaching career.

* Match-Ups To Watch: In the teams’ first match-up, Northwestern was red hot behind the three-point arc. NU ended up 11 of 26 (42.3 percent) on threes. The Wildcats missed their last four three-pointers, so at one point NU was 11 of 22 behind the arc.

Demps was 4 of 6, Abrahamson was 3 of 5, Hearn was 2 of 5 and Sobolewski was 2 of 6. Olah missed that game due to injury, but he is back in action now. Ohio State must figure out the Northwestern offense and push out against these four shooters. At the same time, OSU must protect the back door against NU’s Princeton offense.

If Northwestern can come out again and shoot wide open threes, it will be (another) long night for Ohio State. It is that simple.

* What’s At Stake: The Buckeyes bounced back from their lopsided loss at Wisconsin on Feb. 17 with impressive wins over Minnesota (71-45) and Michigan State (68-60). Those wins should give OSU some momentum going into the stretch drive and the postseason.

Accordingly, the Buckeyes don’t want to give any of that newfound momentum back with a loss to a Northwestern team that seems to have pretty much packed it in.

* What They’re Saying: Matta on the competitive nature of Big Ten basketball: “You’re in a great league. You’re attempting to bring it every single night. But everybody forgets that the other team is bringing it, too. That makes it extremely challenging.

“Every time you take the floor in this league, there is a lot at stake. You look at the schedule and you say, ‘Boy, there are none that I know we’re going to win if we just show up.’ That’s what makes it challenging.”

Matta on ups and downs with Thomas’ shooting in recent weeks: “I hope it’s one of those things that just happens and he gets back to shooting a higher percentage. He’s rushed some shots. We’ve taken a look at it. He was very efficient today in practice. We’re keeping it simple and letting things evolve. He’s been better when he hasn’t forced things and let it come to him.”

Matta on playing tight games against Northwestern: “We’ve had some sizable leads against them. Last year, we were up pretty good against them and scoring at a nice clip. But we were scoring twos and they were scoring threes. They just kept chipping away. One year, they had a seven-point play against us. Crazy things seem to happen.”

Thompson, a Chicago native, on the tough first game with Northwestern: “First of all, give Northwestern credit. They ran their offense, they made shots and they executed for probably 32 minutes. They controlled that basketball game. A lot of that was a lack of defensive intensity and focus by us.

“It wasn’t just the Wisconsin game. We lost three or four games there in a two-week stretch and we did not defend the way we were capable of defending. Northwestern ran their offense well, but we did not do what we needed to do. That’s what happens when you play in the Big Ten.”

* Next On The Docket: Ohio State will be off over the weekend before wrapping the regular season with games next week. OSU will wrap its road schedule at current No. 1 Indiana on Tuesday night (9 p.m., ESPN). The Hoosiers (24-4, 12-3) dropped a 77-73 decision at Minnesota Tuesday night. IU, which defeated OSU 81-68 on Feb. 10 in Columbus, will host Iowa Saturday before hosting OSU.

The Buckeyes will close out their home schedule against Illinois (20-9, 7-8) on Sun., March 10 (1 p.m., ESPN). The Illini dealt OSU a 74-55 loss back on Jan. 5 at Champaign.

* How We See It: Ohio State’s last three games at Evanston have been decided by a total of six points. These teams always seem to play close games. The game in Columbus two weeks ago was tied with 3-1/2 minutes left before the Buckeyes pulled away late.

So it’s just common sense to predict another tough game for the Buckeyes against the Wildcats, right?

Well, yes, we’d ordinarily expect that. But as we have noted, Northwestern’s roster is depleted due to injuries and the Wildcats seemed to have hit the wall. Then again, you could say NU is also due to have a hot shooting game.

Man, it is tough to decide which way to go with this one … so let’s split it down the middle. It will be tight for the first 15 minutes before OSU gradually pulls away and wins it comfortably. We think. Will the Buckeyes defend the three-point line and make that happen? Hmmm.

At the other end, the Buckeyes excelled at attacking the basket against MSU. Look for more of that against NU’s depleted roster.

I will call it: Ohio State 66, Northwestern 50

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