Today Ohio State will open up the 2023 Big Ten Tournament in Chicago against the Wisconsin Badgers. If Chris Holtmann’s team wants to make this year’s NCAA Tournament, they know the only path to make the dance is by winning the Big Ten Tournament.
History isn’t on the side of the Buckeyes, as since the conference expanded, no team playing in the first round on Wednesday has ever made it to even Saturday’s semifinals.
The Buckeyes closed out their regular season schedule on Saturday with an 84-78 loss against Michigan State in East Lansing, snapping a two-game winning streak. Even though the season hasn’t come anywhere close to what was expected from the team heading into the season, Ohio State played hard until the end, they just didn’t have quite enough to take down the Spartans on Senior Day. After trailing 43-34 at halftime, the Buckeyes were able to close the deficit to 67-64 after Bruce Thornton hit a three-pointer with 5:39 left, but they wouldn’t get any closer in the game.
Thornton continued his strong play to close the regular season, finishing with 20 points. The guard is averaging 17.3 points per game over the last four games. Thornton’s scoring output against the Spartans was one shy of tying Brice Sensabaugh for the team-high, but the duo did become the first pair of Ohio State freshmen since D’Angelo Russell and Jae’Sean Tate in 2015 to each score 20 points in the same game.
Justice Sueing put together a strong all-around performance in his final regular season game for the Buckeyes, flirting with a triple-double. Sueing finished the game with 10 points, nine rebounds, and seven assists. Sean McNeil also reached double figures in scoring, finishing with 11 points in 28 minutes off the bench.
Ohio State did a lot of things right in the game, shooting 48 percent from the field and dishing out 15 assists while committing just eight turnovers, they just couldn’t overcome the 15-0 run the Spartans went on early in the game.
Now Ohio State will open up the Big Ten Tournament against the Wisconsin Badgers. This will be the sixth time the two teams have met in the conference tournament, with the Buckeyes holding a 4-1 edge. The last time these two teams met in the Big Ten Tournament was in the final in 2013, with Ohio State gritting out a 50-43 win over the Badgers.
The win in 2013 was the last time the Buckeyes won the Big Ten Tournament. Since the title run, Ohio State has gone 8-8 in the Big Ten Tournament, with their run in 2021 being their only appearance in the finals.
In the beginning of February, the teams squared off in Columbus in their only meeting of the regular season. Wisconsin jumped out to a 43-27 halftime lead and looked like they would cruise to a win, but the Buckeyes fought back to cut the lead to 62-60 with 30 seconds to go after Justice Sueing hit a jumper. The bucket would be the last of the game for Ohio State, as the Badgers would go on to win 65-60.
Brice Sensabaugh led the Buckeyes in scoring with 13 points in the loss. Despite registering a team-high in scoring, it was a game to forget for Sensabaugh, who was limited to just 16 minutes on the floor before fouling out. Zed Key was the only other Buckeye to reach double figures in scoring, finishing with 12 points. One thing Ohio State did well in the loss was rebound the basketball, destroying the Badgers 45-26 on the boards.
Wisconsin snapped a two-game losing streak in Minneapolis on Sunday night with a 71-67 win over Minnesota. Much like a lot of Wisconsin’s previous games this season, the final score was decided by five points or less. With the win, the Badgers are now 11-7 in games decided by that amount. Six Wisconsin games have gone to overtime this year, with the Badgers posting a 3-3 record in games that weren’t able to be decided in regulation.
Greg Gard’s team got off to a slow start against Minnesota, falling behind 36-29 after the first 20 minutes of basketball on Sunday. Wisconsin wouldn’t really get things going until the middle of the second half, using a 7-0 run to tie the game at 53 with 8:58 left. There wouldn’t be much separation between the teams the rest of the way. Chucky Hepburn’s three-pointer with 47 seconds left broke a 62-62 tie and gave the Badgers the lead for good.
Steven Crowl and Tyler Wahl put forth nearly identical performances against Minnesota, as both forwards scored 21 points and grabbed seven rebounds. Hepburn finished with 12 points, while Connor Essegian scored 11 points. The starters had to do all of the scoring for Wisconsin since the Badgers didn’t get any points from their bench.
The lack of production from the Wisconsin bench is nothing new since the majority of the scoring from the Badgers come from their starting five. Hepburn is one of the four Badgers to average double figures, leading the team with 12.2 points per game. Essegian, Crowl, and Wahl are all averaging at least 11 points per game, while Max Klesmit adds 8.3 points per game. All together, the five Wisconsin starters account for 55.3 of the 65.2 points per game the team averages.
The Badgers enter today’s game with a 26-21 record all-time in the Big Ten Tournament, winning it all on three occasions. The last time Wisconsin won the Big Ten Tournament was back in 2015 when they beat Michigan State in overtime. In 2017, the Badgers made it to the championship game, but lost to Michigan. Since the loss to the Wolverines at Madison Square Garden, Wisconsin hasn’t advanced past the semifinals.
Both teams know the odds are stacked against them in Chicago, and nobody is expecting either to win more than a game or two at the United Center. Ohio State has been playing better basketball of late, and a lot of it can be attributed to the increased confidence Bruce Thornton has been playing with. By becoming more of a scoring threat, Thornton has taken some of the pressure of Brice Sensabaugh, who was looking like he was wearing down before the uptick in play from Thornton.
What Ohio State can’t afford is to fall behind early like they did in last month’s game against the Badgers in Columbus. A lot of the losses this season for the Buckeyes can be attributed to sluggish starts. Ohio State needs to come out of the gates strong and force the Badgers to get out of their comfort zone. Dictate the play instead of being forced to play the game your opponent wants to play.
Another area where Ohio State can’t see a repeat of what they did in the first matchup is staying out of foul trouble. Brice Sensabaugh needs to be on the floor for more than 16 minutes. Honestly, the Buckeyes need him out there for twice that amount. Even though he’s just a freshman, he is too special of a talent to be stuck on the bench. If Ohio State is able to get at least 20 points out of Sensabaugh, they should be able to win tonight.
Neither team is particularly deep on the bench, but Chris Holtmann does have a few guys that can make a difference off the bench, particularly Sean McNeil. If McNeil can find his range early, it will open things up for Sensabaugh, Thornton, and the rest of the Buckeyes. Ohio State is at their best when McNeil is on, which helps to keep opponents on their toes and having to respect the Buckeyes more from distance.
Even though many Ohio State fans have already checked out on the season, it doesn’t feel like the team has. The Buckeyes find a way to win a hard-fought game tonight, gaining some revenge on the Badgers for their only meeting in the regular season. While Ohio State’s season likely ends on Thursday against Iowa, they at least earn a win in the Big Ten Tournament, which is something that have seemed to dry up over the last few years.
ESPN BPI: Ohio State 60.6%
Time: 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: Big Ten Network