Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports
Mr. Flattop has arrived. Senior Ryan Evans is playing his best basketball of the season when it matters most.
If anybody had said that to me three days ago, I would have just laughed in their face. I wouldn't even need to dignify such an outlandish remark with a response. But boy, is Evans playing like a man possessed right now.
His game against the Hoosiers yesterday was easily the best of his career in the cardinal and white. Look at this stat line: 16 points, eight rebounds, four assists and four blocks. And he did that against the likes of Victor Oladipo and Christian Watford, who shared the responsibility of defending him most of the afternoon.
Bo Ryan made the adjustment in the second half Friday to run the offense through Evans by giving him a post touch just about every possession. Since that adjustment, Wisconsin has gone to another level offensively. In the past 60 minutes of basketball, the Badgers are shooting 55 percent from the floor (42-for-77). Similar shooting numbers in today's championship game would certainly help Wisconsin's cause as it goes for its third win in as many days against yet another top-10 opponent.
This time, the Badgers draw Ohio State. These two teams split the season series, and the winner of the rubber match will be crowned Big Ten Tournament champs. The Buckeyes are rolling since they were destroyed by Wisconsin in the Kohl Center exactly a month ago. They have won seven straight games by an average of 12.86 points. If UW wants to claim its first conference tournament title since 2008, it will have to play like it has in the past three halves. Here are three keys to defeating Ohio State:
Prevent Aaron Craft from becoming a factor offensively
The Buckeyes' point guard has suddenly emerged as a legitimate scoring option to pair with the conference's leading scorer in Deshaun Thomas. He's notched double-digits in four of his last six games, including an impressive 20-point performance on Saturday to propel OSU past Michigan State. For much of this season, Craft really struggled with his jumper, but not of late. During that six-game stretch, he's shooting 61 percent (31-for-51) from the field and boasts a 3.45 assist-to-turnover ratio. However, Buckeye faithful have seen Craft struggle against Wisconsin's rugged defensive style. He's averaging just 7.5 points per game in his six career games against the Badgers, and that assist-to-turnover ratio dipped to 1.91 in those contests. If Traevon Jackson can fluster Ohio State's floor leader into poor shot selection and a few turnovers, then UW should win today's final in the United Center.
Take care of the basketball
Head coach Thad Matta has gone to his two-point guard lineup more often during the Buckeyes' current seven-game winning streak, and it's worked mostly because of the havoc created by Craft and Shannon Scott on the defensive end. During this stretch, OSU has scored 126 points off of its opponent's 101 turnovers, an average of 18 per game. Normally we wouldn't have to highlight the need to take care of the ball for Wisconsin because Ryan's teams rank among the best nationally in fewest turnovers per game year after year. The Badgers average just 9.8 turnovers per contest this season, but they looked erratic in spurts against Indiana and turned the ball over 15 times. Ohio State has proven it will burn teams if they can't protect the rock, so Wisconsin better play a little crisper and cleaner this afternoon.
Continue to move the offense through Ryan Evans
I know I touched on this a bit above, but Evans is playing at an all-time high right now and he deserves some hoopla (at least for today). He's played within himself the past two days and has gotten some of that flattop swagger back. Many of us have been wondering where that swagger was all season, but it seems as though it has finally arrived. Looking at Evans' season statistically, there is really nothing to gush about. Sure he's fourth in the Big Ten in rebounding, collecting 7.5 per game, but that's always been one of his strengths. His shooting numbers are woeful at best, and his scoring output has dropped from 11 points a night last year to 10.2 this season. One stat really jumped out when looking at his offensive production: 18-2. The Badgers are 18-2 when Evans scores in double-figures. Simply put, if he gets over that 10-point mark today, I think UW walks away champions.
You've got to believe the Badgers have locked up a No. 4 seed in the Big Dance after soundly defeating Indiana yesterday in the semifinals. But would they jump up to the three line with a win today? I would say they deserve to be rewarded if they can complete the three-day title run later this afternoon.
Both Wisconsin and Ohio State look to be playing their best ball at the right time, so today's final should be another Big Ten classic. Regardless of what happens against the Buckeyes, the Badgers seem to have found their groove with the NCAA tournament on the horizon. That has got to make Wisconsin fans everywhere very excited -- I sure am.