The first Badger/Buckeye matchup of the season, back on January 29th, turned out to be one of the biggest highlights of the season for Ohio State. After trailing by two points at halftime, Deshaun Thomas elevated his game against one of the most elite team defenses in the league, and the Buckeyes swallowed up Wisconsin's perimeter game en route to a 58-49 victory in Columbus. Thomas finished with 25 points and led the team with a career high 4 assists. Aaron Craft added 13 points and 7 rebounds, and LaQuinton Ross added 8 points. Outside of the victory over Michigan, the Buckeye's win over Wisconsin has been their best quality win.
Ohio State is heading into the home stretch of the regular season, and badly needs a few more big wins to improve their seeding. Wisconsin finds themselves in a similar position. Wisconsin is tied with Ohio State and Michigan at 8-4 in the Big Ten, and with a much easier end of Big Ten slate (Wisconsin plays only one more ranked team, @ Michigan State, the rest of the way), a home victory over Ohio State would continue give them an outside chance at a league title, and give them a shot at a more advantageous seeding, both in the Big Ten tournament, and in the NCAAs.
Wisconsin may be heading into this matchup a little fatigued. The Badgers have played three overtime games in a row, including a double-overtime spat with Iowa, and their most recent game, a 58-53 OT loss at Minnesota. The Badgers shot a woeful 30% from the floor in that game and only 10-17 from the free throw line. Wisconsin needed a miracle half-court heave to force OT in their win over Michigan as well, so it would be fair to say that their offense is not functioning at peak capacity at the moment.
The stereotype of Big Ten Basketball is often that of a 55-54 sort of slugfest that might feature lower scoring than a Big 12 Football game. This matchup, like their previous tilt, ought to fit that stereotype to a T. Both squads feature tough, physical defenses, a slower, half-court focused offense, and teams that sometimes struggle to hit shots in empty gyms, let alone with men in their face. Points will once again be at a premium.
Those points will probably be a result of a balanced offensive attack. While senior 6-10 big man Jared Berggren leads Wisconsin in scoring at 11.7 points per game, three other Badgers average at least 9.0 ppg, including their bench spark, freshman Sam Dekker, who is shooting 42% from three. Wisconsin doesn't have a great post threat or many players with spectacular individual athleticism, so they will end up taking a lot of threes. If those shots continue to fall, like they did in the first half of their first meeting, Wisconsin can be tough to stop.
Ben Brust may end up being an X factor for Wisconsin as well. He's hit double figures in his last four games after a 9 point outing against Ohio State (where he still hit three three-pointers). Brust will take a *lot* of threes, and if he heats up, probably has the most offensive potential of any Badger.
Knowing the importance of this game to both teams in the Big Ten standings, and given the strong home court advantage Wisconsin typically enjoys in Madison, this game is certain to be a war. Ohio State will need to do everything they can to increase the tempo of the game to give them more possessions and take the Badgers out of their comfort zone. They can do that by forcing turnovers, or using superior athleticism to get out in transition. Sam Thompson was a *complete* non factor in the first game, playing 23 minutes and grabbed only a single rebound and recorded a single assist. Thompson will need to really assert his presence if the Buckeyes are going to get a win on the road.
Final Thoughts: You have to figure that Wisconsin will play better in front of their raucous fans in Madison, but the fundamentals of this matchup. Both teams can play defense well enough to keep the game slow, low-scoring, and close at the end. Ohio State still boasts (by far) the most electric individual scorer in Deshaun Thomas, and probably boasts the second best individual player on the court in Aaron Craft as well. If Ohio State is able to get anything from their wing supporting cast of Smith Jr, Sam Thompson and LaQuinton Ross, you have to like Ohio State's chances.
Wisconsin already can boast victories over Michigan and @ Indiana, along with a sweep of Illinois and a blowout victory over Cal that is looking better. With games against Nebraska and Penn State still to go for Wisconsin, Ohio State *needs* this win more than the Badgers do. If Ohio State can't pull this off, they will likely end the season without a single quality road win.
Holy *!)#@! It's do or die time for the Buckeyes. I like Thomas to turn it on again when it counts, and for Ohio State to win a close one, 54-49.