By now, Wisconsin's reputation as a thorn in Ohio State's side is well-known. After defeating the top-ranked Buckeyes in both football and basketball this season, Sunday presents an unprecedented third opportunity for the Badgers in their regular season finale.
Despite a hiccup at Purdue, Ohio State (28-2, 15-2 Big Ten) has safely navigated the rest of the conference schedule to ascend back into the No. 1 position in the land. No. 10 Wisconsin (23-6, 13-4) has the most to gain by winning with a chance to tie Purdue for second place. A Buckeye win would change little, not even tournament seeding, since Ohio State already clinched the outright Big Ten title when the Boilermakers lost to Iowa Saturday.
Not that there will be a shortage of intensity. Thanks to the events that might have transpired in Madison and Bo Ryan's brash response, Buckeye fans' collective blood is boiling. Ohio State will have a raucous home court advantage Sunday in Columbus, with thousands of gray Nuthouse fans waving "Deal with it" towels.
Today's game will have added importance individually, as both Jordan Taylor and Jared Sullinger get one last chance to state their cases for Big Ten Player of the Year.
Taylor is back in a shooting groove of late. His 39-point masterpiece against Indiana pulled him nearly even with Sullinger and JaJuan Johnson in the individual award conversation. The junior point guard is shooting 12-of-19 on 3-pointers over the last three games. And when opponents dial up the pressure on him, simply finds the open man to the tune of nearly five assists per game and one dramatic game-winner. Taylor can also clinch the Big Ten scoring title this afternoon.
Across the aisle, the 6'8", 280-lb. Sullinger is still a load even though his production has cooled off since the first Wisconsin meeting. Did the Badgers provide a blueprint for defending Sully by running multiple different bodies at him? The freshman phenom has averaged just 12.6 points and 7.2 rebounds per game in the last five contests, well below his season norm.
Neither Wisconsin nor Ohio State are very deep teams, so each side will know the primary participants well. Let's take a look at the individual matchups.
Jordan Taylor vs. Aaron Craft
When Taylor took over against Ohio State on Feb. 12, there was no question he was the best player on the court that day. Though Craft technically comes off the bench, he played the majority of the defense on Taylor and will again. Craft plays an aggressive style of defense that can bother Taylor, but his inexperience was exposed several times by Taylor's shot fakes and quick trigger off of screens. Pay attention to how much smarter Craft plays this time. Note: Taylor will likely face William Buford until Craft enters the game.
Josh Gasser vs. Jon Diebler
I was surprised that UW opted to paste Gasser on Diebler since Tim Jarmusz has had success in that matchup before. But it worked as Diebler was limited to five attempts. Penn State had no such luck this past week as Diebler exploded for 30 points on 10-of-12 shooting from 3-point land. One would not expect Gasser to be as accurate as he was in the Kohl Center, though his shooting has improved as the Big Ten season continued.
Tim Jarmusz, Mike Bruesewitz & Ryan Evans vs. William Buford
This is a frightening battle for Wisconsin. Buford torched the Badgers for 21 points via two specific spurts that spanned the middle of the previous game. Evans slowed Buford down the best, but count on Buford to be a leading scorer for Ohio State again. Bruiser was able to sink some monumental 3-pointers for UW at home and the Badgers will need one of their three swingmen to provide some sort of spark in this game to have a chance.
Jon Leuer vs. David Lighty
Leuer will see some action matched up with Sullinger, but Lighty is the defensive stopper on Ohio State. The fifth-year senior showed why he is one of the premier spark plugs in the conference with a 21-point, six-steal outing against Illinois two weeks ago. His rare combination of strength and quickness also gave Leuer problems at the Kohl Center, where Leuer shot only 5-of-14 for 12 points. Lighty is a true warrior and Leuer has to prove his is too.
Keaton Nankivil vs. Jared Sullinger & Dallas Lauderdale
Though Sullinger outscored Nankivil 19 to 7, I think Wisconsin would take a repeat of the previous installment in this matchup. Nankivil played great defense in that one even though his shot was off. Fast forward to now and Nankivil is averaging 16.5 ppg over his last four games. Past performances indicate Wisconsin will shoot worse on the road, so UW's best chance for another upset may come down to who rebounds better from the center position.
Behind Diebler and Buford, Ohio State is the best 3-point shooting team in the Big Ten. The Buckeyes shoot even better from long distance in league play (42.8%) than their season-long clip (40.5%) indicates, though their effective field goal percentage has been consistent. With Lighty and Craft also shooting over 38% it is surprising that Ohio State does not take more 3-pointers. Simply put, they have not needed to yet.
|Shooting (Conf. only)||TPPP|
|Ohio State||56.1||42.8||52.1||33.1||1.284||1.042||0.242 (19%)||Dumb|
Wisconsin held Ohio State to only nine 3-point attempts previously and hopes to keep it that way today. The game may only be for pride (and a little revenge for Ohio State), but those make the most enjoyable games anyway. A national television audience will be watching and expecting another classic.