For Ohio State to have any legitimate chance of reaching the Final Four, Jared Sullinger must re-emerge as the go-to player he’s been most of his two seasons.
Northwestern’s chances of simply reaching the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history could hinge on keeping the preseason All-American in his recent funk.
The 10th-ranked Buckeyes try to set up a weekend showdown for the Big Ten title and avoid being a large notch in the Wildcats’ belt Wednesday night when the teams play at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
Ohio State (23-6, 11-5) can still claim a share of the conference title if it wins this game and its regular-season finale Sunday at No. 5 Michigan State. For that to happen, though, the Buckeyes must get Sullinger - averaging 16.8 points and 8.9 rebounds - back on track.
The sophomore has been the target of physical double- and triple-teams in recent games as Ohio State has lost three of five. Sullinger has been held in single digits in consecutive games for the first time in his career after scoring eight points in Sunday’s 63-60 home loss to then-No. 16 Wisconsin.
He missed a portion of the second half after cramping up, and coach Thad Matta is trying to make the needed adjustments to get Sullinger rolling again.
“The physicality of it is a great challenge and a statement of the progress with ball movement,” Matta said, noting he may tweak the offense in hopes of “placing him in different places will help him a little bit.”
Northwestern (17-11, 7-9) has good reason to worry about Sullinger, who has averaged 19.3 points and 13.3 rebounds while shooting 25 of 33 in three games against the Wildcats.
“We don’t have anyone to stop Sullinger in the low post,” coach Bill Carmody said. “Do you double him? He’s a good passer, and they have other guys. They have a nice team all around and I’m not sure what our game plan will be.
“It starts with Sullinger and we’ll have to figure out what to do with that guy. I’m not thinking about the offense as much as how we’re going to stop that guy.”
While this is the third straight season Northwestern has played itself onto the bubble for the NCAA tournament, a second win over a top 10 opponent may be the missing piece that puts it in the field. It is that opportunity Carmody relishes in the season’s final week.
“I’m glad we’re in the discussion, that’s good for us,” said Carmody, whose team is 1-6 against ranked teams. “There aren’t any easy games. We’re playing Ohio State, who’s ranked and then Iowa, who’s gotten so much better. It’s just very, very hard. You’re zeroing in on right now.”
The Wildcats’ chances for success may require a dominant effort from John Shurna on both ends of the floor. Already the school’s all-time leading scorer and the Big Ten’s leader this season at 20.1 points per game, the 6-foot-9 Shurna will be manning the middle of Northwestern’s zone defense - and giving up 45 pounds to Sullinger - due to the ankle injury that has sidelined 6-11 Luka Mirkovic for over a month.
Shurna matched a season high with five blocks Saturday at Penn State, where his two free throws with 2.6 seconds left provided the winning points in a 67-66 victory. Ohio State did a good job neutralizing Shurna in an 87-54 rout on Dec. 28, limiting the senior to 11 points on 5-of-18 shooting after he had scored 45 points while making 14 of 23 shots in his previous two games versus the Buckeyes.
Ohio State has won five straight between the teams since a 72-69 loss at Northwestern on Feb. 18, 2009, and 22 of 23 overall.