Though the postseason hopes of the Ohio State men’s basketball team have dwindled to a mere flicker, the Buckeyes are coming off an exciting double-overtime win against the Maryland Terrapins, 79-75, Saturday afternoon. Now, they’re looking to capitalize on that momentum as they head to Madison to take on No. 11 Wisconsin on Tuesday evening.
After spending much of the season leading the conference, the Badgers, for their part, have fallen to the No. 3 spot on the heels of a four-game losing streak, most recently getting walloped by Rutgers, 78-56. It was Rutgers’ largest margin of victory over a ranked opponent in program history.
The Buckeyes will need to make it five straight losses for the Badgers if they want to hold onto their pride in a season that went south quickly over the last six weeks. Entering Tuesday’s game, the Buckeyes sit just one game ahead of Michigan, second-to-last in the conference, having dropped eight of their last 10 games.
The Maryland game, much like the season as a whole, was a rollercoaster ride, with flashes reminiscent of the Buckeyes who started their season 12-2 happening side-by-side with recurrences of recent challenges. The Terrapins jumped out to an early 13-4 lead, but the Buckeyes kept their cool and bounced back with a 7-0 run, to bring themselves within one possession. It went back and forth like this—Donta Scott went on an 8-0 run for Maryland, the OSU answered with a 9-0 run, until the first half finally came to a close, with the Buckeyes up, 33-32, in large part thanks to 11 points from Bruce Thornton.
By the under-12 timeout, Maryland held a one-point lead, and the remainder of regulation continued to be back and forth, often just a one-possession game in Maryland’s favor until Bruce Thornton tied it up with just over a minute left in the game. The Buckeyes held Maryland to just one point in the final 4:26 of regulation, and the teams ended the first overtime period tied at 71-all.
The second overtime period brought the drama, with Zed Key—who was sick with the stomach flu heading into the game—delivering a critical block on Scott that sealed the Buckeyes’ victory. Leading the Buckeyes were Thornton — who is putting up an average of 15.8 points per game — with 24 points, shooting 10-of-20, and Roddy Gayle, who put up 17 points and three assists and went 8-for-8 in free throws.
Key’s illness also opened up the door for more playing time for freshman Devin Royal, who finished with 5 points and six rebounds but also got himself into foul trouble. Still, it was an opportunity for a young player to see some quality minutes.
Despite sitting fourth from the bottom in the Big Ten, Rutgers has been a pest for its opponents all year long, and the Scarlet Knights weren’t content with a small margin of victory against the Badgers Saturday afternoon.
Rutgers led the entire game, due in large part to junior guard Jeremiah Williams who had been out for nearly two years due to injury and eligibility until the Scarlet Knights’ Feb. 3 matchup against Michigan. The Knights were helped out by 12 Wisconsin turnovers. Williams put up 18 points, seven assists, and five rebounds, going a perfect 6-for-6 from the free-throw line.
The Badgers—who were never within single digits in the second half—were led by Connor Essegian with 15 points and season-leader A.J. Storr, with 14 points.
Ohio State will have to keep close tabs on both of them, along with Max Klesmit, who is averaging 13.1 points over the last 10 games for Wisconsin and whose 18 second-half points helped lead his team in their Jan. 10 victory over the Buckeyes.
Their previous matchup was under different circumstances, however. Wisconsin was on a four-game winning streak heading into that contest, a game in which the Badgers outscored OSU 19-4 in the final six minutes to end the game 71-60. At the time, the Badgers were the only undefeated team left in the Big Ten, and despite an impressive performance from Jamison Battle, the Badgers simply outplayed the Buckeyes.
Now, the Badgers’ story has changed a bit, on the heels of four losses instead of a win streak of the same length. Their confidence is shaken. They’ll have no problem making the tournament but for a team that was leading the conference and had a shot at a No. 1 tournament seed just a few weeks ago, they’ve been moving in the wrong direction and need to make a U-turn quickly. It could open the door for the Buckeyes in a game the Badgers should win, on paper.
In spite of the Buckeyes’ hard-fought victory over Maryland, it’s nearly impossible to have confidence in them against a top-15 team on the road, even when that top-15 team is facing roadblocks of its own. While OSU had quite a few impressive offensive runs in their matchup against Maryland, the Terrapins went on multiple runs of their own, including Scott’s 8-0 single-handed run and one victory are probably not enough to turn morale around, especially when it seems coach Chris Holtmann is probably on his way out after this season.
Still, it doesn’t hurt to come off a battle of a game with a win, and Wisconsin’s morale is hurting too. If the Buckeyes can slow Storr and Klesmit down, they’ll have a shot at a major upset on the road against a team that is 11-2 at home this season. That is, if they can get their three-point defense together. When the Buckeyes and the Badgers met back in January, Wisconsin made 31.8% of its threes. Since then, OSU’s opponents have shot 46.1% on threes. The Buckeyes will need to keep the Badgers in check from the arc if they want to stay in this game.
It won’t be quite as simple as shutting down Wisconsin offensively though. The Buckeyes will also have to generate open looks themselves. Look to Battle to open up opportunities for Thornton and Gayle to drive to the basket, something the team struggled with against Indiana last week, allowing the Hoosiers to close the gap on an 18-point deficit. They should also be able to exploit Wisconsin’s own struggling three-point defense.
The Buckeyes will also have to continue excelling from the free-throw line, making the most of every opportunity for points. Luckily for them, Gayle and Battle have been absolute forces from the line. Gayle has hit his last 38 consecutive frees, with Battle not far behind at 34 consecutive frees. If they can effectively draw fouls from their opponents, it could be a chance for the Buckeyes to put up some easy points.
Even then, the Buckeyes might need a little help from the Badgers, something along the lines of the 12 turnovers they sent in Rutgers’ direction over the weekend. If the Buckeyes can play aggressively to force some opportunities and keep it close, they could come out ahead. But if this game gets away from them early, it will be a lot tougher for OSU to bounce back against this Wisconsin team than it was for them to close deficits against the Terrapins.
ESPN BPI: Wisconsin 83.9%
Time: 9 p.m. ET