In case you had forgotten in all this National Signing Day nonsense, there is a pretty epic basketball game this weekend. No. 19 Wisconsin hosts No. 3 Ohio State on Saturday with sole possession of first place in the Big Ten conference at stake.
It's been a wild ride for the Badgers over the past month. It began with a terrifying home loss to Iowa, followed by a heartbreaking home setback to Michigan State, and finally a blowout loss at Michigan. Yet, here we are. Wisconsin has found a way to win each of the last six games to the point where UW controls its own destiny in the Big Ten race. It's almost surreal.
A big thanks goes out to Chris Lauderback from OSU blogging juggernaut Eleven Warriors, for agreeing to give us the Buckeye perspective on this match up. I also chatted with Elika at Eleven Warriors for their preview.
B5Q: This weekend's match up might not have quite the same buzz as last year's tilt, but first place in the Big Ten is on the line. Where do you rank this game in terms of importance for Ohio State's season?
11W: No question winning this game is of huge importance to Ohio State. Obviously, maintaining sole possession of first place is the number one priority and the opportunity to beat Bo Ryan, frankly a coach the team and fans don’t like very much, in Kohl would be very significant. The Buckeyes are just 3-3 on the road this year and would love to gain some confidence by beating an upper tier conference team at their place. A win would also be a great springboard to the second half of their regular season slate.
B5Q: In the off-season, Jared Sullinger got himself into better shape and was expected to terrorize the league on a new level. He's been slowed a bit by injuries. As you've watched him, what is the most underappreciated area in which he's improved as a sophomore?
11W: We’ve discussed this particular topic a few times over at 11W. For me, while I’m happy to see that he’s been able to unveil a very effective midrange jump shot this year, I continue to think his most underrated skill is how he handles the double team.
For one of the few times this year, he was actually frustrated by Michigan’s constant double- and triple-teaming, but more often than not, he’s made teams pay for such strategy. Though his assist numbers won’t wow you, he does a nice job of sensing the double team and either finding the cutter or skip passing to the far wing/corner. If stats were kept like hockey assists, I’m pretty confident he’d lead the league thanks to his unselfish and crisp passes out of doubles.
Also, he’s pretty good at anticipating where the double will come from when he receives entry passes on the low block and often times he’ll spin away from the where the double is coming and hit a 10-foot jumper.
B5Q: The Buckeyes are 3-3 on the road this season, but has basically an entire week to prepare for Wisconsin. Do you think this helps or hurts OSU since they are coming off a dominant win over Michigan last weekend?
11W: Twenty-two games into the season, I would hope the elongated rest would help, though this is still a very young team with just one senior and four sophomores in the starting lineup, plus a junior and two freshmen in the rotation against legit opponents barring foul trouble.
It’s just one of those things where you really never know until the game starts. I think Buckeye fans have reason to worry about a sluggish start based on past road struggles but considering Wisconsin isn’t the type of team to typically come out and light up the scoreboard, I don’t see either team running away from the other in the early going.
My guess is that Ohio State will come out ready to play and any offensive struggles that could potentially be attributed to the extended layoff could be neutralized by being prepared to play defense for 30-33 seconds each possession.
B5Q: It seems like Thad Matta is loosening up his rotation a bit this year. Nine players have played at least 25% of the team's minutes as opposed to only seven guys last year. Is this out of necessity or because he really likes his OSU's depth this year and is turning over a new leaf?
11W: There are many variables to explain why the bench is logging more minutes this year.
For one, Matta was forced to use his bench more against Kansas with Sully out and uncharacteristic foul trouble at Indiana (there isn’t a worse ref in college basketball than Sanzere) and at Illinois. Typically, against top level competition, it’s a virtual lock that Matta will shorten the bench.
Another reason for the increased minutes is the fact the Buckeyes have been mauling most opponents, leading the nation in scoring margin at a ridiculous +21.7. Even in conference, though admittedly the second half of the conference slate is tougher, the Buckeyes have beat Northwestern by 33, Nebraska by 31, Iowa by 29, Indiana by 17, Nebraska again by 34, Penn State by 24 and Michigan by 15. Those lopsided scores have made it easier for Matta to break from his norm.
Now, all this isn’t to say the bench isn’t deeper than in years past because it most certainly has increased depth. Sam Thompson has seized the first guard of the bench role and though he doesn’t have much of a jumper yet, he’s an electrifying slasher to the rim, holds his own as a freshman on-ball defender and is spectacular as a weakside shot blocker. Evan Ravenel, a Boston College transfer, is serviceable in relief of Sully and Thomas. Shannon Scott gives Matta a backup point guard that at least isn’t overwhelmed as a true freshman though, like Thompson, his jumper is erratic at this point in his career.
B5Q: This Ohio State team is so young. Who has filled the leadership void left by last year's seniors, particularly David Lighty?
11W: Honestly, nobody has stepped in as the clear cut leader. The hope was that Buford, as the lone senior, would rise to the occasion but that’s just not something in his DNA. He’s a good kid, you’ll never hear me say otherwise, but he’s quiet and reserved and if anything, sometimes he has needed a teammate’s lift as he’s struggled with consistency in scoring making good decisions with the basketball.
That said, all is not lost in the leadership department. Despite being just sophs, Sullinger and Aaron Craft have more often than not emerged as the court generals. Craft leads by example, going balls the wall on every possession, and Sullinger is the more vocal of the two. Understandably, these two haven’t duplicated what Lighty and Diebler provided but with all the big games they will have played over the last two seasons, the hope is that they will take their leadership, especially at the end of games, to the next level come March.
B5Q: As a four-year player, William Buford has seen a lot of wins and scored a lot of points. I was shocked earlier this season to hear he had a chance to become Ohio State's career scoring leader. Though he won't reach that milestone, do you view him as one of the all-time great Buckeyes? What will Buford's legacy be?
11W: This is a tough one to answer. Not because I’m on the fence about my opinion but because I have always really liked The WB and to watch him regress this year has been difficult.
The reality is, he’s not an all-time great Buckeye if you are truly talking about the cream of the crop to play at Ohio State. Beyond being a tad one dimensional at times, he’s come up short in big games, most notably in the season-ending loss to Kentucky last March.
Having said that, Buford is in the conversation of great complimentary players to lace ‘em up in Columbus. He has taken over his fair share of games offensively and just the threat of his ability to score has often freed up teammates to shine.
So, depending what happens in the tourney this year, his legacy is that of a very good player and important scorer that logged heavy minutes on some great teams in Columbus that sometimes failed to perform in the clutch.
Ugh. Did I mention how much I really do love Buford yet?
B5Q: Most people would expect Sullinger to be the engine for OSU on Saturday. Who is more key to a Buckeye victory between the secondary players: the floor general Aaron Craft or a scorer like DeShaun Thomas?
11W: Based on matchups, I’d have to say Craft will be more key on Saturday since he’ll be tasked with trying to slow Jordan Taylor.
I’ll never forget (or forgive) Taylor’s second half last year in Kohl. After OSU took a 47-32 lead with 13 minutes left after a 19-6 run, Taylor torched the Buckeyes for 18 points (6/6 FG, 4/4 3FG) during a 30-8 run putting Ohio State in a 62-55 hole in the eventual 71-67 loss. Taylor finished with 27 points in a spectacular effort.
In the rematch in Columbus, the Buckeyes won by 28 as Craft held Taylor to eight points on 2/9 from the floor showing just how important it is for Ohio State to slow Taylor on Saturday if they have any designs on snatching the road win.
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