As Wisconsin has gotten more aggressive offensively over the past few weeks, repeated trips to the free throw line have invigorated the Badger offense. Led by Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin is now tops in the Big Ten in free throws attempted per field goal attempt.
Not only have the converted freebies improved UW's offensive efficiency, but they've opened up the court for the rest of the offense as well. The Badgers are shooting higher percentages across the board of late. Since Greg Gard took over, Wisconsin has raised its overall shooting percentage from 41.2 to 45.0 percent. That increase includes a slight uptick in three-point shooting (from 32.9 to 34.0).
The Badgers (13-9, 5-4 Big Ten) have limited their shots from the perimeter due to their subpar shooting from deep this year, but they've also been lackluster inside the arc for most of the season. This poses an interesting dilemma for Thursday night's contest, when the Ohio State Buckeyes (14-9, 6-4) bring the most efficient defense to Madison that Wisconsin has seen since Maryland.
Thad Matta shook up his starting lineup three games ago, sending JaQuan Lyle and Trevor Thompson to the bench in favor of freshmen A.J. Harris at point guard and Daniel Giddens in the middle. The move to Giddens actually brings an even better shot blocker to the first unit. Ohio State ranks third in the country in percentage of shots blocked thanks to the acumen of Giddens, Thompson and Keita Bates-Diop.
Because the Badgers are shooting below the Division I average on two-pointers anyway, it makes sense to wonder if that will negate the advantage the Buckeyes have on defense with their length. Yet that puts a lot of pressure on UW's perimeter game to come up big -- barring another huge night at the charity stripe.
(Thank you in advance, Kohl Center.)
No, Wisconsin will have to earn its bones on the the other side of the ball, where its discipline has sneakily improved under Gard also.
The Badgers are actually allowing a higher shooting percentage (40.6) from three-point land to Big Ten opponents than the frighteningly high clip it allowed in the non-conference. Although that number ranks UW dead last in the conference, look beyond it. Wisconsin has countered by lowering how many three-pointers it allows opponents to shoot. At 27.8 three-point attempts per 100 field goal attempts, the Badgers are the stingiest in the Big Ten. That is smart basketball, the Bo Ryan way.
And on the offensive end is where OSU has been most disjointed. Lyle hasn't responded well to the benching. The freshman has scored nine points and committed eight turnovers despite playing almost as many minutes as he did as a starter. For the season, Lyle is averaging 25.7 percent on threes and a turnover on nearly one out of every four possessions he uses.
Marc Loving is exactly the kind of player who racks up big numbers against lesser competition and falters against solid defense. Now a junior, Loving is scoreless in 28 career minutes versus the Badgers.
Consider sophomores Kam Williams and Jae'Sean Tate the exact opposites of how I just described Loving. Thorns in the side who poke you when you aren't expecting it. Williams has exploded for a few big games already this year, so he'll be on UW's scouting report. The 6'2" guard is shooting a team-best 47 percent from long range. Meanwhile, Tate has an improving outside shot, but is really an undersized bruiser at 6-4 who can hurt you on the glass.
While Ohio State's big men are great on defense, their offense is in the developmental stage. The Bucks will be an interesting matchup on both ends for Ethan Happ. Happ recently picked up his third straight Big Ten Freshman of the Week award and is also second in the league in steals per game. Look for him to take a few swipes at his young adversaries in the post.
Most of the Buckeyes' inside scoring will come from Loving posting up or from Bates-Diop, who has been a pleasant surprise for Matta in his second year. He is one of 10 underclassmen on an OSU roster that has only one upperclassman (Loving).
Wisconsin looks downright seasoned compared to Ohio State. Thanks to the leadership of Hayes, the presence of his fellow juniors, and the progress Happ has made, the Badgers seem to have figured things out a bit faster than the Buckeyes in this rebuilding year for both schools.
Even so, UW is fortunately to host the lone meeting between these two teams this season. Whether its Williams, Tate, Bates-Diop, Loving or even a bounce back game from Lyle, the Buckeyes won't go quietly. Not with that defense.