Badgers Will Test Ohio State’s Toughness
By Patrick Murphy
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Watching the Ohio State Buckeyes basketball team throughout the course of this season has not always been pleasant, at least offensively. This team has struggled to find a consistent second scorer and therefore has not put the ball in the basket at a high rate.
If things were ugly before, it could be even worse when 14th-ranked Ohio State takes on the Wisconsin Badgers Tuesday night (7:00 p.m. ET, ESPN) in Columbus. The Badgers, under head coach Bo Ryan, make their living on slowing the game down and making things ugly.
Wisconsin’s team prides itself on low possession games, where they use the majority of the shot clock offensively before attempting to score. On defense, they are sound and in the opponents’ face. They want their opposition to waste time as well, trying to figure out how to break the defense down.
The Badgers (14-6, 5-2 Big Ten) average 67.8 points per game, ranking them 175th in the country. In comparison, the offensively-challenged Buckeyes (15-4, 5-2) have averaged 73 per game and are ranked 114 spots ahead of Wisconsin in the scoring department.
In Big Ten play, the numbers get even less appealing to fans of the modern offensive style of play. Only once in conference has this team scored more than 65 points – a 74-51 win over Illinois – and the Badgers have won games this year where they only scored 47 and 45 points.
Photo by Jim Davidson
“The pace is probably a little bit different than what we’ve gone against thus far,” Coach Thad Matta said when talking about Wisconsin’s style of play.
“I think our guys understand that. You can look at scores the last couple of games and say it’s probably going to be a low-possession type of game.”
In comparison, Ohio State’s lowest scoring output for the season was 56 in the victory over Michigan and has scored as high as 90 points in a game. And this is a team whose fans are complaining that they cannot score effectively.
While it may not be the most attractive basketball, it has worked for the Badgers over the last several years, especially against the Buckeyes. Ryan has a 10-7 record against Matta during their tenure at their respective schools, including several big upsets. This Wisconsin team handed the 24-0 Buckeyes their first loss of the season two years ago. They also won in Columbus on senior day last year.
“It seems like all the games we’ve played (against Wisconsin) have had major implications for one reason or the other,” Matta said Monday.
Their success over the years has been predicated on their system, which forces teams to defend for long periods of time and punishes mistakes. This strategy works on more than just the Buckeyes, as Wisconsin went in to Assembly Hall earlier this year and knocked off the then-No. 2 Indiana Hoosiers, holding one the country’s best offensive teams to just 59 points at home.
To be successful, Ohio State has to be at their best mentally against the Badgers.
Photo by Jim Davidson
“Coach talked to us about really valuing every possession and making every possession count,” said sophomore Sam Thompson.
“We don’t want to come down, jack up a quick bad shot in the first 5-7 seconds of the shot clock, have to go down and defend for 35 seconds. That’s playing into their hands.”
Defense is hard work, both mentally and physically. It requires complete attention to everything going on to be done successfully and can be draining on a player. To have to defend a team like Wisconsin, who make you defend for every second they are allowed, can be exhausting, especially if they get multiple possessions on one offensive trip.
“We have to rebound the ball,” Thompson said. “We don’t want to play good defense for 34, 35 seconds, have the ball come off, they get a rebound, and they run their offense again. We have to value every possession.”
Point guard Shannon Scott also talked about the keys when playing this Wisconsin team.
“We really can’t turn the ball over this game because we know we’re going to have limited possessions,” he said.
“We’ve got to really take care of the ball. We can’t take bad shots at the beginning of the shot clock because they’ll just get the ball and hold it.”
Playing the team from Madison can be grueling defensively, but that side of the ball is where the Buckeyes have thrived this year. While this team continues to focus on figuring out their offense, the defense has been sound throughout the season. This will help in what is bound to be a low scoring, grind it out affair.
The key for the Buckeyes tonight will be forcing Wisconsin to turn the ball over. That will allow the Buckeyes to get out in transition and not let the Badgers set up their defense. Fast break points will be huge for Ohio State, and that is where a guy like Thompson can really get things going.
Fortunately for the Buckeyes, the small forward is beginning to understand his game.
“There’s always things you can learn, but I think I have a pretty good feel for the conference, college basketball,” he said. “I think I’ve adjusted pretty well to the speed and physicality of the game.”
If he can continue his development from the Penn State game – and maybe add a few more high flying dunks in transition – Ohio State should be able to do enough to overcome the molasses style of the Badgers.
In the end though, this is another Big Ten game and this team has to be prepared like they do for any opponent.
“This is honestly no different,” Matta said of preparing for Wisconsin as opposed to other opposition in the conference. He realizes the style may be slower, but preparation remains the same.
That is just the way it is this year in the Big Ten, which has established itself as the best conference in the country this season. Each game presents a new challenge for a team to overcome, and hardly anything is predictable.
One thing you can count on is another dog fight, requiring focus and mental toughness for another Buckeye victory.