The Buckeyes and Badgers last squared off back on February 17th. Wisconsin was coming off a disappointing overtime loss to Minnesota, capping off a three game stretch where every game had gone into at least one extra session. The Buckeyes had just dropped two of three, with their lone win a highly lukewarm victory over Northwestern. They knew their bracket profile was definitely lacking in a quality road win, and they knew they were running out of chances to grab one. Wisconsin looked mortal, and the 2/17 matchup in Madison looked like a game the Buckeyes really needed to win.
The game was over almost before it begun. Ben Brust immediately buried the Buckeyes in a barrage of threes, Jared Berggren swatted shots and humiliated Amir Williams, and Wisconsin built a 17 point halftime lead en route to a 71-49 massacre that was so bad Amedeo Della Valle actually lead the Buckeyes in assists and blocks. Ohio State looked every bit the fringe NCAA team that the more radical fan and beatwriter fringe made them out to be after Ohio State's similar blowout loss against Illinois. The season, at that point, was not fun.
A funny thing happened after that blowout. Ohio State got a *lot* better. Now, they're at the precipice of something none of us, even the most optimistic of Buckeye fans, dreamed of a few weeks ago: a Big Ten tourney title. To get there though, they'll have to run through the same team that served as the catalyst of their seven game run, the Wisconsin Badgers.
Wisconsin has certainly had the tougher road to get to the final, having dispatched both Michigan and near-certain one seed Indiana. The Badgers were the only team this season to defeat the Hoosiers by double digits, holding them to 38% shooting and recording 10 blocks en route to a 68-56 semifinal victory. The Buckeyes had a quality win of their own, beating Michigan State, 61-58, behind another strong performance from America's rosy cheeked national treasure, Aaron Craft.
What can Buckeye fans expect? Obviously, more crushing defense, a slow pace, and timely threes. Ryan Evans, the flat-topped, jump free throw shooting guard/forward, is quietly having an excellent postseason for Wisconsin, averaging 14 points, 7 boards, 5 assists and 2 blocks a game in the B1G tourney. His ability to establish position deep into the paint, either from a pass or a drive, allows him to set up three point opportunities, especially late in the shot clock. He's been doing a little of everything for Wisconsin, and finding ways to take away part of his game (either the passing, rebounding, or just by forcing him to take lots of jump shot free throws), could go a long ways towards disrupting Wisconsin's offensive flow.
Wisconsin's long range shooting abilities always have to be respected. Ben Brust and Sam Dekker may well be the names to most watch out for. Dekker was quiet against Michigan, but has been one of the league's best freshman and 6th men, and had 11 critical points against Indiana. Brust is averaging 13 points a game and is shooting 50% from three point range over the Big Ten tournament. Making sure the Buckeyes closely defend the perimeter throughout the entire shot clock will be a major key to success, as Wisconsin has plenty of options from long range.
Ohio State did beat Wisconsin back on January 29th, a 58-49 decision in Columbus. Wisconsin was productive from long range in that game, hitting 11 threes, but only had 8 2-point field goals and didn't attempt a single free throw. Deshaun Thomas was eventually able to take over the game with 25 points and 4 assists, paving the way for a critical victory. Thomas is the only Buckeye who had some measure of offensive success in both meetings with Wisconsin, and will obviously need to have a very strong game in order for Ohio State to have a chance.
One development that should give Ohio State some hope is the strong recent performances from LaQuinton Ross. Ross had 9 points and only 1 turnover against Michigan State, and also added 11 points and some nice passing against Nebraska. He's also shooting 5-for-7 from three point range, and his athleticism and long range shooting add an x-factor to the Buckeye offense that may be critically needed in a low scoring game.
This doesn't project to be a particularly beautiful game, but championships are championships, no matter how ugly the getting there. If the Buckeyes win, an NCAA two seed is probable, a thought that seemed completely out of the question back on the 17th. Ohio State knows how ugly things can get in a hurry if they get lazy in late shot clock situations, or rush shots and fall right into Wisconsin's desired pace. The role players for Ohio State are hitting their stride at exactly the right time, even if Deshaun Thomas hasn't been exceptional yet. Ross has emerged as a dynamic three point threat, and Chicago-native Sam Thompson has played two great games in a row. If those two are shooting well, and a merely competent Craft emerges, Ohio State is going to be an exceptionally tough out, not just today, but in the Big Dance as well.
Holy war. It won't be pretty, but you better believe the Buckeyes are going to be pumped up for this game. Thanks to another big performance from Slam Thompson and some key Thomas buckets in closing, why not take the Buckeyes to cut down the nets in the Windy City? 56-51, OSU.