Andrew Holleran / Photo editor
Sam Thompson is returning home – for one night, anyway.
The Ohio State sophomore and the rest of the No. 16-ranked Buckeyes play at Northwestern Thursday evening. For Thompson, a Chicago native, the road trip gives him a chance to see the city he grew up in, if only for a brief moment.
“It’s weird,” Thompson said Wednesday of traveling back to the Windy City. “We fly in to the airport, drive through downtown Chicago, drive past things that I’ve seen for the past 20 years, and I can’t go home. I can’t do the things I normally do when I’m in the city.”
The trip for Thompson and OSU to Evanston, Ill., a suburb roughly 20 minutes outside Chicago, after all, is strictly business. Coming off what was perhaps the most fulfilling week of the season, OSU is starting to build some momentum heading into the postseason. The Buckeyes thrashed Minnesota, 71-45, on Feb. 20, before upsetting then-No. 4 Michigan State, 68-60, Sunday.
OSU has three games left in the regular season before heading back to Chicago for the Big Ten tournament. The Buckeyes remain in contention for a regular season conference title, but the chances of that happening are incredibly slim. OSU currently is tied for fourth place in the Big Ten with Michigan, trailing first-place Indiana by two games. The top four teams receive a bye in the conference tournament.
“The race is never over. We know that. Every other team knows that,” Thompson said.
That sentiment was perhaps never more apparent than it was Tuesday night, when No. 1 Indiana fell to unranked Minnesota – the same team OSU had beaten by 26 a week earlier – by four points in Minneapolis.
“It’s kind of just life in the Big Ten,” said OSU coach Thad Matta.
Northwestern might not pose the same threats that some of the Big Ten’s elite teams do, but OSU knows all too well what the Wildcats are capable of. During the pair’s meeting in Columbus Feb. 14, Northwestern led the game for nearly 32 minutes before OSU put a run together to close out the contest with a 69-59 win.
“Give Northwestern credit because they really ran their offense, they made shots, they executed. For 32 minutes, they controlled that basketball game,” Thompson said.
What the Wildcats did that night was slow the game down considerably. Running their Princeton offense, known for constant motion, back-door cuts and off-ball screens, Northwestern lulled the Buckeyes’ defense to sleep. Then, as the shot clock was set to expire, they attacked, got an open look and connected.
“It was a lack of defensive intensity and focus,” Thompson said.
OSU now has to face that same spell in Northwestern’s home arena, where the Buckeyes have struggled in the past. Matta’s crew has won its last two games at Welsh-Ryan Arena by a combined three points. Only 8,177 fans can fit in Northwestern’s humble abode, but don’t tell OSU it’s easy to play there.
“They may not have the same facilities we do or run the same offense but (Northwestern) definitely belong(s) in this league,” Thompson said.
Having to face slow-it-down Northwestern after facing run, run and then run some more MSU is no easy task, either.
“One of the greatest challenges of coaching in this league is you’ve got such contrasting styles from night to night,” Matta said.
Most of OSU’s focus, though, is on itself. When the Buckeyes play to their capability, it appears they can play with anyone (see: win against then-No. 2 Michigan on Jan. 13 and the defeat of MSU). When they don’t, they can be beaten badly (see: blowout losses at Illinois on Jan. 5 and at Wisconsin on Feb. 17).
“This time of the year, we need to find something (to get) rolling,” junior guard Aaron Craft said after the MSU game. Matta said he has seen improvement since that loss in Madison, Wis. He’s been using everything up his coach’s sleeve to get the Buckeyes rolling, too. Before the Minnesota game, Matta played a YouTube clip of former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis giving a motivational speech. Matta’s been admittedly harder on this team than he has any of his others.
“I think we’re in pretty good shape,” Matta said. “We’ve gone hard, extremely, extremely hard.”
With only 10 true scholarship players, it is easy to spot the player in practice that isn’t bringing everything they have – mentally and physically.
“If somebody doesn’t have it a particular day, you know. You get embarrassed, really,” Thompson said.
The team’s mindset has been on track recently, Thompson said, which should bode well for the Buckeyes. OSU, and specifically Thompson, who will have a strong contingent of friends and family in the stands Thursday night, don’t want a repeat of their most recent road trip: a 71-49 embarrassment at the hands of the Badgers.
No one is saying it is going to be easy, though.
“You’re in a great league. You’re attempting to bring it every night,” Matta said. “People tend to forget every other team is bringing it, too.”
OSU and Northwestern are set to tip off at 7 p.m. in Evanston, Ill.