On January 29, Wisconsin locked horns with Ohio State with both teams knotted at 5-2 in conference and ready to make some noise in the Big Ten title race. A 58-49 loss to the Buckeyes that day forced the Badgers to regroup -- which they did in impressive fashion, beating Illinois, Iowa and Michigan in succession.
This weekend, No. 20 Wisconsin (17-8, 8-4 Big Ten) again finds itself in lockstep with No. 13 Ohio State (18-6, 8-4) in the league standings, both teams part of a three-way tie for third place. Sunday's loser will essentially be out of the title picture. The Badgers are teetering after a complete breakdown by several key players at the end of Thursday's loss to Minnesota.
I exchanged emails with Chris Lauderback of Eleven Warriors this week to see how the mood has changed on each side since the previous meeting between UW and OSU. I also managed to sneak in a question about Jared Sullinger's "Salivagate" controversy from two years ago. Check out the other half of our Q&A at Eleven Warriors.
B5Q: Ohio State closed out Wisconsin pretty well during the teams' last meeting. How have the Buckeyes been overall in tight games and holding onto late leads?
Eleven Warriors: It’s been a mixed bag. Against Northwestern on Thursday night, Ohio State struggled for the first 37 minutes, finding themselves in a 57-57 dogfight at home, before closing the game on a 12-2 run as Deshaun Thomas took over down the stretch.
On the other hand, nine days earlier in Ann Arbor, the Buckeyes wasted a chance to pick up a huge road win thanks to late game shenanigans. Ohio State actually led by four with four minutes left but closed out regulation shooting 3/9 with a turnover, allowing Michigan to force overtime. In the extra session, things got worse as the Buckeyes missed four of five shots with a pair of turnovers, essentially handing Michigan the game.
I could cite other examples but the biggest thing to watch if tomorrow’s game is tight in the closing minutes is whether or not Ohio State gets the ball to Thomas. In close games against good teams, Thad Matta and Chris Jent have struggled in devising ways to get Thomas the rock and on the court, his teammates have inexplicably forced the action, specifically Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith Jr. If Thomas gets just two shots over the final nine minutes like he did at Michigan, Ohio State undoubtedly loses this tomorrow.
B5Q: Have there been any changes to Thad Matta's starting lineup since you last played Wisconsin? Is there anyone who has really stepped up for the Buckeyes lately?
11W: Thad doesn’t tinker with the lineup much and even his rotation is fairly static, as you’d expect especially this late in the season. Amir Williams did take the starting center spot from Evan Ravenel just prior to the B1G season kicking but the starting lineup has been fixed since.
Thomas and Craft log 35+ minutes per night and Smith Jr. plays nearly 30 a night. After that, the rest of the rotation guys soak up minutes ranging from low teens to mid 20’s. Sam Thompson starts at a wing and Thad trusts him but if Ohio State needs an offensive infusion, LaQuinton Ross has been seeing more minutes. In the post, Williams has played pretty well, all things considered, in four of his last five outings, so Ravenel has seen his court time shrink a bit.
Backup point guard Shannon Scott is the only other rotational player and his minutes have fallen off a bit ever since his brainfart at the end of the Michigan State game coupled with LaQuinton’s mini-emergence at times. He hadn’t played north of 20 minutes since the loss at Sparty though he did play a B1G season high 26 minutes Thursday against Northwestern as Matta employed a four-guard lineup for much of the 2nd half.
Unfortunately for Ohio State, no player not named Deshaun has stepped up – consistently – for the balance of the season. Craft does what he does but Thomas has had to put the offense on his shoulders as guys like Smith Jr., Thompson, Ross and Williams have struggled with taking on expanded roles.
B5Q: Assuming the Badgers can shoot even a below average number of free throws in this game, I expect Wisconsin to perform much better at the Kohl Center. Looking at Ohio State statistically, the team is actually more efficient offensively than defensively, which is somewhat shocking given the scoring options other than Deshaun Thomas. If Ohio State gets this road win, how do they do it ultimately -- great offense or great defense?
11W: During the ebb and flow of a season, the offensive efficiency numbers can fluctuate but as someone who watches an often times re-watches the games, the eye-test says this team struggles more to score than it struggles to stop opponents from scoring, unless the opponent has a legit inside presence.
To beat Wisconsin on the road, I think it will be crucial for Ohio State to turn in another strong defensive effort. As you know, in the first matchup, Wisconsin struggled to get decent looks inside, or simply settled to launch threes, depending on your perspective. That formula saw Wisconsin shoot 37% from the floor, while taking 54% of their shots from beyond the arc, and kept the Badgers off the free throw line for the entire game.
In addition to trying to force the Badgers to settle for three-point tries, Aaron Craft will again have to dog Jackson out top, forcing Traevon to initiate the offense from further out than Bo Ryan would like. The Buckeyes also held up well on the glass in the first matchup (29-23). A repeat performance of 12 rebounds and three blocks from the Williams/Ravenel combo would also go a long way in securing a road win.
B5Q: If you had to handicap OSU's chances at sneaking back into a conference championship yet this season, how would you assess the Buckeyes' odds?
11W: I don’t really think Ohio State has any shot a regular season conference crown but in such a competitive league, I suppose anything can happen.
As I type this on Saturday morning, Indiana and Michigan State are both sitting at just two conference losses, ahead of the four-loss logjam of Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin.
Indiana still has to go to East Lansing and Ann Arbor while Sparty still faces a three-game stretch of Indiana, at Ohio State and at Michigan, and the Wolverines still have Sparty and Indiana but both are at home. At this point, I don’t see a scenario where Indiana doesn’t win the title, it’s just a matter of whether or not they share it Michigan State or maybe Michigan.
From what I’ve seen, Ohio State simply doesn’t have the horses to close the season winning six straight, or even five out of six, and that’s what they’d likely need to do in order to claim a share of the crown. That’s a pretty unrealistic expectation considering they play at Madison tomorrow and still face Sparty at home along with a trip to Indiana. Plus, in this league, they could drop one of the other three games including Minnesota, at Northwestern and Illinois.
B5Q: Sunday's game has big conference tournament seeding implications. Do you see this year's Ohio State team as built more for regular season play or a tournament run?
11W: Considering they’ve already lost six of the seven games they’ve played against ranked teams, I can’t fathom saying they’re built more for the regular season. This is the most flawed team Thad has had since he arrived in Columbus back in 2004.
Regarding an NCAA tournament run, I think there a couple factors that Buckeye optimists can cling to. First, Ohio State has a premier scorer capable of carrying a team, and that always comes in handy when you start playing single-elimination basketball. Second, Craft is as battle-tested as they come and has shown a knack for completely disrupting a team’s offense, especially if they’ve never gotten to enjoy the Aaron Craft Experience.
Finally, the fact the tournament is still a minimum of seven games away gives Ohio State a little bit more time to see if Williams can find some consistency in the post and if the light will finally stay on for Ross. If those two could take the next step – and that’s a big if – Ohio State could make a little bit of noise in March though I still think a Sweet 16 appearance is the ceiling and even getting that far will be extremely difficult given how this team has fared against legit competition thus far.
B5Q: I debated asking this question, but before I let you go, I have to revisit the Jared Sullinger spit saga briefly. Now that two years have passed, can you tell me what Ohio State fans honestly believe happened that day? Sullinger's own versions of the story didn't always add up and Matta downplayed the whole incident. Without too much detail on my own opinion, it seems like a case of OSU fans running with it since the incident gave them great fuel to hate on Wisconsin and Bo Ryan even more, without too much concern for what actually happened (and for the record, I can live with that -- it's fanaticism in a nutshell.)
11W: You pretty much nailed it. I think Ohio State fans believe Sullinger was the victim of flying saliva in some way shape or form, and I know they think Ryan handled the situation poorly. To your point, I think it’s easy to come to those conclusions as a fan. Hell, that’s part of what makes it fun. I will say that Ryan’s response, more so than whether or not someone spit on Sully, did more to fan the flames than anything else.
Personally, the only B1G coach I truly despise is Tom Crean though I think many Buckeye fans have Crean and Ryan as 1 and 1A on their hate list.
B5Q: Prediction time: Give us a winner and a score.
11W: Ohio State is just 3-3 on the road in the B1G so far this year with the wins coming against bottom feeders Purdue, Penn State and Nebraska, which doesn’t do much for my confidence.
Considering Ohio State’s past struggles in Kohl, I have to take the Badgers in this one, although I do expect the game won’t be decided until the final minute. I’ll say Wisconsin 59, Ohio State 56.
Much thanks to Chris for his thoughtful responses this weekend. You can follow him on Twitter @Chris11W and the whole Eleven Warriors brigade @11W.
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: 63% (60-57 W) 60 possessions
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