The No. 21 Ohio State Buckeyes men’s basketball team seems like they have all the momentum. Three-straight wins, including one over Penn State to open conference play, more scoring from more sources and much-improved guard play have meant that a team that started the season flat has found some juice.
That improved team will be tested this afternoon when they take on No. 22 Wisconsin in Columbus. The Badgers themselves are winners of six-straight, including a victory over No. 12 Houston.
Ohio State looked well-rounded in its most recent, 85-74 win over Towson. Despite leading by just one point at the half, the Buckeyes pulled away for a double-digit victory over the Tigers Wednesday night. The Buckeyes shot 57.4% from the field, and 43.5% from three-point range.
It was one of the most balanced performances from a scoring perspective that the Buckeyes have seen all season. Four players scored in double digits, including senior forward Kyle Young, who led Ohio State in scoring with 18 points on the night — a career high — coming off the bench.
Joining Young was senior forward Justin Ahrens, junior forward EJ Liddell (the team’s leading scorer on the season) and sophomore forward Zed Key, who had 16, 15 and 13 points, respectively, against Towson. Ahrens was 5-of-10 on three-point shooting against the Tigers.
Ohio State outrebounded the Tigers 31-21, and had four blocks to Towson’s one (although, defensively, the Buckeyes had just three steals to Towson’s nine). Though the Buckeyes were certainly not mistake-free — something that ailed them in their two close losses this season — they did hit 84% of their free throws.
Ohio State looks like a different team than what we saw at the beginning of the season, and the Buckeyes are still riding high after knocking off a top-ranked Duke team. Now, they’ll need to continue this momentum as the Buckeyes move deeper into Big Ten play.
The Buckeyes are already a third of the way through their season, and the team has evolved after being tested early — even with the continued absences of Justice Sueing and Seth Towns from the lineup. The players have come together, especially since their massive win over the Blue Devils, and will have another big test this afternoon against Wisconsin.
Wisconsin has already recorded a conference win over Indiana, 64-59, in their most recent game Wednesday. Impressively in that matchup, the Badgers overcame a 22-point deficit to get the W, matching Wisconsin’s largest comeback in program history.
Sophomore guard Johnny Davis had a team-high 23 points, but he was the only Badger to score in double figures against the Hoosiers. He was aided by grad transfer center Chris Vogt, who had nine points and a team-high 12 rebounds. Vogt also had the game-clinching assist for Davis for the Badgers against Indiana.
As one might expect for a team that scored just 64 points, Wisconsin’s shooting was pretty bad. The Badgers connected on just 35.5% of their shots from the field, and a meager 22% from range. The difference came with Wisconsin playing extremely clean ball, connecting on 83% of its free throw attempts (to Indiana’s 46%), and the Badgers had just four turnovers.
On the season, Davis leads the Badgers with 20.5 points per game (which is good for 17th in the nation). Davis is also tops on his team in rebounding, assists and steals. Wisconsin lost its leading two scorers from last season in D’Mitrik Trice and Micah Potter, and Davis has stepped up to fill the void.
Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard has been at the helm in Madison for seven seasons, and has amassed a record of 121-71 overall, including 70-45 in-conference. Before getting the head coaching job, Gard had been an assistant at Wisconsin since 2001.
The Buckeyes, meanwhile, have shifted their offensive philosophy after key departures from last season, but things are starting to get back to “normal.” Ohio State has been leaning on forwards and interior shots as their guard play develops — which it has over the course of their nine games this season.
Leading the way in that department is Penn State transfer Jamari Wheeler, who had one of his best games of the season against his former team in the Buckeyes’ conference opener. While he’s been averaging just six points per game, Wheeler has one of the Big Ten’s best assist-to-turnover ratios at 3.17.
There’s also true freshman Maliki Branham, Ohio’s Mr. Basketball from last year, who has emerged as a key part of the starting lineup. Though he has the growing pains we’d all expect from someone so new to the program, he’s shown a lot of growth in just a few short weeks.
While Wheeler and Branham have not been averaging blockbuster points, they have had some time to find their rhythm as the forwards — Ahrens, Key and, lately, Young — have begun to pile on points. The added scoring has helped round out to support EJ Liddell, who’d largely been carrying the team in scoring early this season, and who remains third in the Big Ten in scoring this season.
Young in particular has come on strong in recent games. In addition to his 18-point performance against Towson, he had 16 versus Penn State. He also didn’t miss a three-point shot in either game.
Overall, the Buckeyes are second-best in the conference in shooting from the floor and three-point shooting.
The Buckeyes seem to have all the steam as the puzzle pieces have come together in recent weeks. Despite losing nearly all their guard play from last season, the new guards for the Buckeyes have started to come along, and bring sparks to a team that started the season flat.
They’ll need that sustained spark this afternoon against Wisconsin. The Buckeyes hold the all-time record versus the Badgers 89-73. Ohio State won their last meeting against then-No. 10 Wisconsin on the road in Madison last season. The Buckeyes took the matchup 74-62, anchored by Liddell’s 20 points.
Looking ahead to today’s contest, as demonstrated against Indiana, Wisconsin is never out of the game. Coincidentally, the other 22-point deficit Wisconsin overcame was against Ohio State in 1976. They also overcame double-digit deficits against Texas A&M and Saint Mary’s in the Maui Invitational last month.
Not only was Wisconsin (mostly Johnny Davis) able to get the proverbial ball rolling for the Badgers’ offense, the Badgers also pushed a stifling defense in the second half against Indiana that gave up just 17 points.
Ohio State enters the home game as 4.5-point favorites in their second conference game of the season. It’ll be a tough matchup, but the Buckeyes have all the momentum.
ESPN BPI: Ohio State 71.9%
Time: 12 p.m. ET