In little more than 24 hours, the biggest Big Ten game of the season will get under way in Madison when 13th-ranked Wisconsin takes on top-ranked and undefeated Ohio State.
Eric and Jay from The Buckeye Battle Cry answered the bell and filled us in on what's going through the minds of Ohio State fans as the game nears. Their thoughts on OSU's one weakness might be a little unsettling to Badger fans. Click here to read my answers to the Buckeye inquisition.
Thad Matta has surrounded another fabulous freshman, Jared Sullinger, with some fine complimentary pieces this year. It's a formula that worked for him with Greg Oden in 2006-07, and making another run at the NCAA title seems feasible now that the Buckeyes have found a legit point guard in Aaron Craft.
B5Q: I think everyone has been impressed with Ohio State so far this year. If the Buckeyes win in Madison, do you think they will finish the regular season undefeated?
TBBC: That's a big "if" you're slinging around there, but I'll play.
Assuming the Buckeyes escape the Kohl Center in one piece, they still have games at Purdue, at Penn State and a rematch with your Badgers in the friendly confines of Columbus. After the drubbing OSU gave Purdue at home, it will be a minor miracle to survive that game by itself.
Incidentally, if OSU goes into Happy Valley undefeated, Penn State might just get up and pull the same trick they did with you, Illinois and Sparty.
Short answer: the same one I gave Boiled Sports -- not an icicle's chance in heck.
That said, OSU currently has a 15% chance of going undefeated through the regular season (they're predicted to lose 2 based on nothing more than traditional basketball win/loss statistics). With 7 tough games left to go, I like those odds.
B5Q: Both David Lighty and Aaron Craft are two of my favorite non-Badgers to watch play right now. Who is more important to OSU's continued success -- the senior wing or the freshman point guard?
TBBC: Intriguing question you pose here...
Lighty provides us with a defensive stopper, a fourth scoring option (if we're counting Sullinger, Buford, and Diebler as the first three) who can drive the paint and knock down some threes at this point in his career, and most importantly, an extremely strong leadership presence. Craft provides us with tough defense as well, although not the same versatility on the defensive end as Lighty, additional outside shooting, and obviously a true point guard to run the show for our team. Thus far on the season Craft seems to have steadily gotten better while Lighty has had some good games and some not-so-good games.
While it is more gut-wrenching than you might think to say this, I think our freshman point is more important to the team's success right now. Here's why: The "natural" lineup for our team this year is with Craft at the point. After he checks in about five minutes into the first half, he's in pretty much the rest of the game. Lighty can more easily swap in and out with guys like Thomas, Diebler, and Buford. While Lighty's leadership seems to drive this team forward at times, it has been Craft that (somewhat as a surprise) has taken us to the next level. Lighty keeps us focused, but Craft gives us that confidence that is so important to be able to prevail in tight games.
B5Q: Jared Sullinger has such a mature game and my confidence in Wisconsin's senior front court containing him diminishes every day. Am I just a hater or do you agree that Sully is already getting tons of respect from officials? He seems to know how to use his body really well.
TBBC: I definitely don't think you're a hater, but there's a significant difference between "getting a lot of respect from" and "having an unfair number of calls go his way".
The problem with defending Sullinger, and the ultimate reason why he draws so many fouls, is he is a matchup issue for any defender. If you try to go one-on-one with him, he'll beat you unless (and sometimes even if) you foul him. If you try to double team, he passes the ball out and you get burned by OSU's shooters.
I'm really looking forward to seeing what Bo Ryan does to take Sullinger out of the game. We've seen a few different looks this season, but none have worked on a consistent basis. It will be interesting to see what Ryan employs as a defensive strategy, and if it has more of an impact.
Ultimately, playing solid, fundamental man defense on Sullinger is not sufficient. Human reaction in those situations is to foul, even with fantastic coaching. The only way to beat him might be to force him into foul trouble and get him off the court...
That's not overconfidence, that's simply an honest statement from someone who has yet to see any strategy actually properly stop him.
B5Q: Has there been a common thread throughout Ohio State's close calls in January (Minnesota, Michigan, Penn State) and the latest wake-up call against Northwestern? What can Wisconsin learn from those games and apply on Saturday?
TBBC: My initial thought in reaction to this question is "missed free throws." It seems that Ohio State continues to struggle at the line, and it allows teams to hang around at the ends of games. At the start of the season it seemed like we finally had the ongoing free throw issues fixed (even Dallas Lauderdale knocked down consecutive freebies in one game), but the problem has reared its ugly head again. Of the games you noted, our best outing in terms of percentage from the charity stripe was against Northwestern, where we shot 70% on 14-20 shooting at the line.
Watching our team this season, I never really get nervous about being behind a bit as long as we're playing at a steady pace and getting decent looks. We've got enough guys who can shoot that eventually someone will heat up and give us a chance to gain the lead. At the same time, I trust that our defense can come up with stops regularly enough that we're not going to be so far behind that a comeback is impossible. But the free throws are worrisome, and will probably bite us at some point. Missing free throws not only represents a lost opportunity for points, but they also tend to give the opponent some hope, which can count for a lot at the end of a close game.
If Wisconsin can learn anything from this, it's that fouling is a good policy. The Badgers already play a more grinding style that will limit the scoring opportunities for Ohio State, so you might as well take the foul more often than not and make us beat you at the line.
B5Q: The media has been buzzing about Jordan Taylor lately, but since you guys are three states away I want your perspective: Is Wisconsin perceived to be Jon Leuer's team? Do people in Ohio recognize who Taylor is yet?
TBBC: To be honest, I would be surprised if the average Buckeye fan could name even Jon Leuer. You know, traditional football school and all that.
Jordan Taylor has received a lot of (well earned) press the last couple of weeks. I've been particularly impressed with the way he has elevated his game from last season. He has to be one of the single most dangerous scorers in college basketball right now, and I'm not looking forward to seeing Ohio State try to defend him.
I will say this: people in Ohio will recognize Taylor on Sunday. There's no doubt in my mind about that. Whether or not they view it as anything beyond Jon Leuer's team will depend a lot on the outcome of the game.
B5Q: Since you asked me about one-and-dones, I wanted to ask who have been your favorite Buckeyes of the Matta era? I feel like the reason OSU fans loved Evan Turner so much was because he was the exception to the rule and developed as a collegian. Does losing your star players constantly take a toll on the fans?
TBBC: Players leaving early doesn't seem to take a toll on the fans because we've been able to replace them for the following season with a fair amount of success. Certainly we experienced a drop off when the Oden-Conley class left, but that team was a rarity.
Having said that, we do appreciate our upperclassmen. While it would be hard to find a player more exciting to watch than Mike Conley, I would not count him among my personal favorites. The players I remember most fondly are guys like Terence Dials (from early in Matta's tenure), Ron Lewis (from the Oden-Conley team), and of course David Lighty. Dials was a workhorse in the post who developed over four years and really played an important role in providing Matta with some material to work with in getting off to a good start with Ohio State. Ron Lewis was a transfer from Bowling Green, so we didn't actually see him for all four years of his collegiate career, but he did provide an upperclassmen presence that was valuable on that freshmen-dominated team. We've already discussed Lighty's leadership, and when he is announced on senior day this year as the winningest Buckeye in Ohio State history, I fully expect the ovation to last for a good long while.
In light of all this, Jared Sullinger would endear himself to Buckeye fans forever by sticking around for one more year (or two).