At some point in every season, you have to stop saying "it's still early" and make a move. That time is now for Wisconsin and Ohio State. The handful of championship-caliber teams already a nose ahead of them in the Big Ten standings makes it imperative to keep pace.
Ohio State (15-4, 5-2 Big Ten) is a team which Wisconsin (14-6, 5-2) has gotten to know pretty well recently. Yes, Jared Sullinger is gone, but important games like these will keep a burgeoning rivalry going. It helps that Bo Ryan has held his own against Thad Matta in these battles of the two winningest coaches in Big Ten history: UW is 5-4 at Value City Arena (built in 1998) under Ryan's watch and he owns a 10-7 advantage over Matta overall.
So, while fans on both sides are familiar with Tuesday's key players, many might not have realized how similar these teams are this season. To help us prepare for another pace-challenged conference brawl, I invited Luke Zimmerman, founder and editor-in-chief of the superb Ohio State blog Land-Grant Holy Land, to give us his thoughts on this relegation match.
B5Q: Not only are Wisconsin and Ohio State tied in the conference standings, but their statistical profiles are quite similar. In particular, on defense. The Buckeyes in fact hold opponents to lower shooting percentages than the Badgers across the board. How much of that is attributable to Aaron Craft and how much is simply a group buying in to a different way to win games?
Land-Grant Holy Land: I think there's more than enough first hand evidence from the league's coaches that Craft is worth several percentage points in and of himself against even the league's best scoring guards. While Ohio State's defense is in a class with very few others (Wisconsin might be one of these few), the Buckeyes still seemingly win games with a similar formula from game to game: elite defense across the board and then 1.something scorers. If that "point-something" fails to show, it becomes exponentially harder for the Buckeyes to win.
B5Q: Has Thad Matta settled on a two point guard system with Craft and Shannon Scott finally? Do you agree with how Matta is dealing with these platoon situations (Sam Thompson and LaQuinton Ross being the other)?
LGHL: I think contrary to what some cynics in Columbus might say, Matta has the pulse of his team down pat. He never abandoned Aaron Craft when Craft's shot seemed to fail him, and Shannon Scott's gotten roughly just the right amount of minutes. I'm sure those not watching every game might claim otherwise, but Scott isn't the auto-solution many who haven't seem him all season play in-play out would seem to think. Thompson and Ross have been tougher to figure out, but just when we feel like one deserves more playing time, the other really steps it up. It's hard to fault Thad given that he's still been pretty good about playing the better of the two when they're on.
B5Q: Surely Deshaun Thomas is a nylon-searing cyborg sent from the future. He's light years ahead of any other scorer in the Big Ten, but isn't getting a lot of help. Which opponents have had any sort of success slowing Thomas down this season? Does that have a direct correlation to defeating OSU or very little impact?
LGHL: Penn State. That's it. Not even joking; no one's come really all that close, other than the Lions and the Buckeyes' two best opponents: Duke and Kansas (I didn't mince words there). Even on the days when Thomas either has two or three hands in face or just "doesn't have it" (which still means double digits scoring), he finds a way to get the line to get freebies.
Whether the opposing strategy is focus all the attention on Thomas or focus none of it, I haven't noticed a correlation to wins and losses. Ohio State winning or not winning hinges far more on someone stepping up to supplement him, more than replace him (where it seems like multiple guys do in those rare cases).
B5Q: I thought Ohio State was a little overrated coming into the season purely because of all the inexperienced players who would be asked to fill the minutes left by Jared Sullinger and William Buford. As a faithful observer, has the process been as smooth as you expected? How has the team surprised you so far this season?
LGHL: I'd say I'm a little disappointed, but that's probably the burden of high expectations. I don't think the offensively inclined Aaron Craft we saw in the first couple of games this season was sustainable, but I also thought that LaQuinton Ross would be more consistently better offensively. Buford had such a weird uneven career, for all his good early on, by the end, I can't say he was the asset many outsiders made him up to be. Heck, even Sullinger fell off pretty hard in the latter third of his sophomore season. Surely we'd kill for a player of his accumen (and we're all rooting for him with the C's), but I suspect this season to next will be a far great drop off than last to this when everything's said and done.
B5Q: Iowa, Minnesota, Penn State and Purdue are Ohio State's single plays this season. How much does that hamper Ohio State's shot at a Big Ten title. What are your thoughts on unbalanced scheduling in general and what the future might hold due to conference expansion?
LGHL: Getting Minnesota twice would probably better the ol' NCAA tourney resume, but you pointed out who you did because it does make the road tougher. I still come from more of a "you're going to have to beat them anyways" sort of mind state, so I don't mind facing the slightly higher degree of difficulty road to a potential title. I won't feel like schedule alone cost the Buckeyes if they don't achieve it let's just say.
If conference expansion does happen, lord please let it be not-Virginia/Boston College. But after that, I'm far more concerned about 10-game football schedules and the like.
B5Q: One complaint of Badger fans this season has been inconsistent play of the seniors up front. If they don't show up against Ohio State's front court, that seems like it would be a real wasted opportunity. What resistance does OSU provide to a guy like Jared Berggren inside with Evan Ravenel and Amir Williams?
LGHL: Roll your twenty side die and let's see! No seriously, Ravenel and Williams couldn't be more uneven from contest to contest. Ravenel seems to have kind of become the player many optimistic BC fans thought he might be when he was still there (of late, anyways), but for being an ex-McDonald's All-American, I still can't say I've ever seen a more passive big man than I have with Williams. It's almost like he forgets he has an independent right and a left hand and that he's a near seven-footer with athleticism when he gets in the paint sometimes. But if Williams does one thing well, it's defend. I'd be surprised if Berggren had it too easy, but if they don't show, who knows, maybe he might.
B5Q: In the span of one week, Ohio State went from getting blown out by a mediocre Illinois team to beating previously unbeaten Michigan at home. The Buckeyes actually look to be in good shape heading into the meat of the schedule since they've split their four early road games and held up at home. What's your hope for the rest of the season for this team?
LGHL: I wish I knew. This team plays up to the best competition (for at least a half, anyways), and down to the worst. The one consoling element to me is that there doesn't appear to be a great team in college basketball this season. For how good the Big Ten's been, no one is unbeatable.
If I had to be put on the spot, I'd guess the Buckeyes split Wisconsin, lose the other to Michgian, split Indiana, and win out otherwise. I'd settle for trading a second Michigan win for any other loss (even Nebraska), though.
B5Q: Make a prediction for Tuesday's game if you dare.
LGHL: Ohio State 50 - Wisconsin 46. Because reasons.
I appreciate Luke for taking the time to join in the Q&A fun today. Check him out on Twitter @lukezim or with his OSU mates @LandGrant33.
Projected Starting Lineups
|Jared Berggren, Sr.||C||Amir Williams, So.|
|Mike Bruesewitz, Sr.||F||Deshaun Thomas, Jr.|
|Ryan Evans, Sr.||F||Sam Thompson, So.|
|Ben Brust, Jr.||G||Lenzelle Smith, Jr.|
|Traevon Jackson, So.||G||Aaron Craft, Jr.|
KenPom win probability: 31% (62-57 L) 61 possessions
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