The importance of Saturday afternoon’s game in Madison really depends on how you perceive this Ohio State men’s basketball team. So, the No. 15 Buckeyes’ 74-62 victory could be seen as another major addition to a growing tournament resume, or just OSU finally finishing a game that they led by double digits.
Wisconsin has been an elite program for over a decade, especially at home, where they have racked up 143 Big Ten wins at the Kohl Center over the past 15 years. Losing on the road to a top-10 team would have been nothing to hang your head about, and had they lost, the Buckeyes still look every bit of an NCAA Tournament team. That is one way to look at it.
On the other hand, the Buckeyes (12-4, 6-4) were 5-3 in the B1G before Purdue came to town on Tuesday evening. Had they won that game, they would have been 6-3 in conference play and in third place in the Big Ten — not fifth, where they stand now, at 5-4. If you believe Ohio State is good enough to finish in the top three or four in the conference, Saturday’s game was another must-win for them to avoid falling to 5-5 and getting lost in the murky middle of the toughest conference in college basketball.
The day began on a high note when it was announced that CJ Walker would be active against the No. 10 Badgers (12-4, 6-3). Ohio State went 3-1 in his absence while he rehabbed his injured right hand, but the turnovers were beginning to mount and the Buckeyes’ offense looked disjointed and lethargic in key moments without their floor general, especially against the Boilermakers. Walker finished the game with eight points and three assists in 24 minutes today against Wisconsin.
While the Badgers do not possess one “star” post player like Purdue and Illinois do, they have depth in their front court that other teams don’t, and were able to throw length at Ohio State all afternoon. Nate Reuvers and former-Buckeye Micah Potter have exhausted the Big Ten all season long, but 6-foot-9 sophomore Tyler Wahl has come on strong lately as well, including 14 points in Wisconsin’s win over Northwestern on Wednesday. Potter, Reuvers, and Wahl combined for 26 points today, and Ohio State out-rebounded a bigger Wisconsin team 35-30.
The undersized Buckeyes, clad in their new all-black uniforms, were spread out and forced to defend size mismatches all afternoon. But a balanced offensive attack kept the Badgers on their toes, while the Buckeye defense repeatedly forced Wisconsin to pass around and shoot at the very end of the shot clock. E.J. Liddell and Kyle Young guarded Potter and Reuvers especially tight, limiting Wisconsin’s big men to a combined nine points at halftime.
Led by Seth Towns’ eight points, the Buckeyes held a 32-25 lead at the break. Ohio State out-rebounded Wisconsin 19-17 in the first half, and only one Buckeye was called for more than one foul (Walker) in the opening frame.
Ohio State and Wisconsin went punch-for-punch in the second half, trading blows while the Buckeyes kept their foes at arm’s length for most of the second half. Justin Ahrens contributed from downtown as he always does, but his defense hurt the Buckeyes repeatedly as he fouled Potter and Trevor Anderson on made baskets that would send them to the line for a free throw after the basket.
The rest of Ohio State did a remarkable job defending Wisconsin’s deep and balanced offense, holding Trice and Potter — Wisconsin’s leading scorers — to 12 and 11 points, respectively. The Badgers cut Ohio State’s lead to as few as six points in the final minute, but the Buckeyes were able to hang on, hit their free throws, and escape Wisconsin with their third-straight victory over a top-15 team on the road. The Buckeyes were led by Liddell’s 20 points and seven rebounds, while Towns was the only other Buckeye to score in double digits. He finished with 10 points.
What were the key plays from Ohio State’s win today? Here are the moments that mattered:
Davison with the kick save
With Ohio State leading 6-3 roughly three minutes into the game, Wisconsin’s Brad Davison shot a three-pointer and nailed it, while Justin Ahrens collided with Davison’s legs. Both players hit the deck, and Davison was ready to walk to the free-throw line to finish the four-point play.
However, the referee standing directly behind the play ruled that Davison kicked his leg out in a “not natural” way, drawing the contact and forcing the foul. An offensive foul was called on Davison instead, the basket was waved off, and Ohio State got the ball back. The Buckeyes would go on to score the very next possession, taking a 9-3 lead into the first media timeout. A swing of potentially seven points that allowed OSU to continue to build an early lead.
Three in the key, or three for me?
Trailing by eight with 11:35 to go in the first half, Wisconsin’s Micah Potter took on not one, not two, but three Buckeye defenders in the paint. He finished the shot, and Seth Towns was called for the foul. Chris Holtmann immediately jumped up, claiming that Potter was in the key for more than the allowed three seconds, but the zebras wanted none of his grumblings. Potter finished off the three-point play, and Ohio State’s lead was cut to 15-10.
“Balanced ... as all things should be”
After attempting 35 three-pointers during their loss to Purdue, including an ice cold performance from deep in the second half (when they surrendered their lead), Ohio State made a conscious effort to attack the basket in the first half against Wisconsin while only shooting from beyond the arc a few times.
With 8:24 to go in the first half, Duane Washington connected for the Buckeyes’ first three-pointer of the game, which extended their lead to 24-13. At this point of the game, the Buckeyes had 14 two-point tries and only three three-point attempts. Ohio State finished 5-of-16 from beyond the arc. Washington Jr. struggled, finishing with nine points on 1-of-9 shooting.
Johnson’s first career block
With 2:39 left in the first half and Wisconsin trying to cut into the Buckeyes’ lead, 22-year old senior Brad Davison tried to back down 17-year old, should-still-be-high-school-senior Meechie Johnson. Davison took three dribbles with his back to the basket, but when he turned around Johnson was able to go straight up for a clean block, sending Davison packing. It was Johnson’s first collegiate block.
Welcome to flavor Towns
Seth Towns looked healthy and efficient in the first half of today’s contest, scoring eight points on 4-of-5 shooting in the period. He played just nine minutes in the opening frame, but showed how efficient a scorer he can be when healthy. He was the Buckeyes’ leading scorer in the first half, showing flashes of the player he once was at Harvard and the type of player he hopefully will be again once he is fully healthy. Towns finished the game with 10 points on 5-of-8 shooting while also grabbing two rebounds.
No call, no matter
With 17:36 left in the game and Ohio State leading 37-28, E.J. Liddell picked off a Wisconsin entry pass intended for Potter and brought it down the court himself. He found Kyle Young down low, who used a shot fake to get Aleem Ford in the air. Young then went straight up for the layup, drawing contact on the bucket and extending the Buckeye lead to 39-28. No foul was called, but Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard was forced to call a timeout with the momentum beginning to swing back in OSU’s direction. Young would end the day with eight points and four rebounds, two of which came on the offensive end.
Ahrens giveth and Ahrens taketh away
Justin Ahrens — who at 50% is the best three-point shooter in the B1G with a minimum of 50 attempts — continued to show why he is a hot commodity. With 14:29 to go, he hit his third triple of the game to extend Ohio State’s lead out to 49-36.
But minutes later with Ohio State up by 11, Ahrens fouled Potter on an easy layup; Ahrens’ second and-one foul of the game, and third foul overall. Potter completed the three-point play again, and the Buckeye lead was cut back to eight points with just over 12 minutes remaining in the game.
Ford goes 3-for-3 from three
With 6:36 left in the game, Aleem Ford — the worst three-point shooter in Wisconsin’s starting lineup at 31.7% — nailed a three-pointer from the left corner, cutting the Ohio State lead to 57-50. Ford would then go on to connect from downtown on each of the next two Wisconsin possessions, sandwiched around a Kyle Young three-point play. By the final media timeout at the 3:40 mark, the Buckeyes’ lead — which was 13 at one point — had been cut to just four, 62-58.
Trice misses both at the line
With Ohio State leading 66-58 with 1:52 left in the game, Kyle Young fouled D’Mitrik Trice, a 77% free-throw shooter. Shockingly, Trice missed both free throws, allowing Ohio State to hold on to their eight-point lead in the closing minutes.
Ohio State now has seven days off before their next game, which is scheduled for Jan. 31 at 1 p.m. ET against Michigan State (8-4, 2-4) in Columbus. The Spartans’ previous three games have been postponed due to COVID-19 cases within the program, but their games against Rutgers on Thursday and Ohio State on Sunday are still on the schedule. If their game with MSU is cancelled, the Buckeyes’ next game would not be until Feb. 4 at Iowa. Ohio State’s game with Michigan State will be broadcast on CBS.
Note: On Friday, Chris Holtmann hinted at the possibility of adding a non-conference game during the upcoming week to replace their Dec. 5 game against Alabama A&M that was cancelled. He did not specify if it would be against Alabama A&M or a different team.