Let me issue my apology right off the top.
I called for the Badgers to "practice" their three-point shooting against Northwestern in preparation for what will be a rugged test against Ohio State, and I never should have made such a blasphemous request.
Wisconsin shot 5-of-24 (20.8 percent) from three in its loss to the Wildcats, and early in the second half especially, it was as if the rims in the Kohl Center had been bent so badly that a carnival shot game would have seemed fairer.
In all seriousness, I do need to apologize for coming off as disrespectful to Northwestern for saying all the Badgers really had to do was show up on Wednesday. The Wildcats came out with an excellent game plan and are a markedly improved team. Once Chris Collins gets his own guys to Evanston, they'll be contenders in the Big Ten for a long time to come.
Still, though, Northwestern had just been wiped at home by Iowa before visiting Madison, and I have no choice but to peg Wednesday's home conference loss as one of the worst, if not the worst loss in the Bo Ryan era. That may sound like a reactionary statement, but after exchanging messages with some old college buddies and reading through the Twittersphere after the egregious loss, I think that statement actually encompasses the sentiment of most Badger fans.
The 2013-14 campaign started off as a historic and magical season for Wisconsin, but it has quickly turned sour, and just when the Badgers find their footing again is uncertain at this point. After losing three straight, UW took care of business against Purdue on the road, and fans and pundits alike undoubtedly thought the Badgers were out of their rut.
Oh, how wrong we all were.
Thankfully for Wisconsin's sake, Bo Ryan and company draw an opponent that is actually struggling more than they are, as unimaginable as that might sound.
Ohio State is coming off an arguably even worse home loss, and the Buckeyes have officially entered free-fall mode. It's hard to believe that just three weeks ago, Saturday's matchup looked like it would feature two top-five teams, and now each squad is fighting just to stay in the top 25.
As disappointed as I am with how Wisconsin has played of late, I refuse to throw in the towel on this season. There are still 10 Big Ten games remaining and a lot can happen, but things need to change... and fast. That starts tomorrow at 11 a.m. CT.
Here are our three keys to the Badgers knocking off the Buckeyes in what we're terming a "must-win" contest.
Play with a spark
No statistical analysis needed in our first key. Rather, this is just a call for the Badgers to regain their ability to play with energy and do the "little things" they've become famous for over the past decade -- come up with loose balls, draw charges, out-work the opposing team.
Wisconsin was asleep from the outset Wednesday and did not wake from its stupor until the game was essentially out of reach. The mental fortitude of this UW squad is never something I thought I'd question, but here I am. The Badgers have been hit with haymakers to the jaw a few times in recent weeks, and I've seen little ability for them to recover and punch back.
Saturday's game features two desperate teams, and the one willing to deliver the knockout blow will be who wins. If we don't see urgency out of Wisconsin, then I think fans can legitimately begin to throw in that proverbial towel.
Make life hard for Lenzelle Smith, Jr.
Smith, Jr., is the Buckeyes' second-leading scorer at just over 12 points per game on the season, but in Ohio State's five Big Ten losses, he's averaging just 10 points on 34 percent (17-of-50) shooting. I haven't seen many of OSU's games this season, but from those I have watched, it is clear that the Buckeyes are a more fluid offensive team when Smith Jr., is having a good night.
If I'm Ryan, I actually stick Josh Gasser on Smith Jr., to start, rather than on the Buckeyes' leading scorer, LaQuinton Ross. Ross needs to be defended with length, so stick Sam Dekker on him to begin the contest. Gasser can then get physical and fluster Smith Jr. out of a rhythm so that he can't complement Ross in the scoring department.
Ross is good enough to the point he's going to get his numbers, so I say let him. Obviously don't let him go for 20-plus, but if you make the Buckeyes a one-dimensional scoring team, they're easy to beat.
Take care of the basketball
This is primarily directed at struggling Wisconsin point guard Traevon Jackson, but it goes for the whole team as well. Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott are two of the best on-ball defenders in the country, and if you're not careful, they'll pick your pocket before you know it.
Since scoring 21 points in a loss to Indiana, Jackson has been miserable as the Badgers' primary ball-handler, averaging nearly three turnovers and just 9.25 points on 28 percent (10-of-36) shooting over the past four games. He has played fairly well against Craft in the past, but I'm concerned with Jackson's ability to bounce back from his recent woes against as deadly a defensive duo as he'll face tomorrow. Plain and simple, Jackson has to make great decisions without forcing the issue the tomorrow and that might be tough to do.
Wisconsin is still turning the ball over less than any team in the country (8.3 TO/game), but valuing the basketball is of paramount importance against a team like Ohio State. This game is going to be a low-scoring slugfest with minimal possessions, so every turnover will have a greater impact for each team. Whichever team hands it over the least is likely to be the winner.
Prediction: I've never been so intrigued to watch a game involving two teams that have been terrible in the weeks leading up to it, but this contest should be a great one. I expect the Kohl Center to be filled with desperation, and because the game is at home, I'll take the Badgers' desperation over the Buckeyes'. Wisconsin 61, Ohio State 54.
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