Embedded in a brutally tough stretch of Big Ten play, the road grows no less treacherous for the Wisconsin men’s basketball team Tuesday when they play No. 11 Ohio State at Value City Arena in Columbus, Ohio.
The Buckeyes (15-4, 5-2 Big Ten) mark the fifth ranked team the Badgers (14-6, 5-2) have faced in the last six games, a stretch they emerged from with a 3-2 record. With each opponent comes a fresh challenge, and for Ohio State that begins with one of the most dominant big men in the nation’s strongest college basketball conference, Deshaun Thomas.
The junior forward — a player perhaps best compared to Indiana star Cody Zeller — leads the Big Ten with 20 points per game and collects 6.5 rebounds. Worrisome for Wisconsin fans is Zeller earned a double-double and had his second-highest scoring effort of the year in the Badgers’ upset at Assembly Hall, posting 23 points and 10 rebounds. Thomas will be a constant nuisance to each of the two University of Wisconsin forwards who will likely spend the most time defending him, Jared Berggren and Ryan Evans.
But unlike Zeller, Thomas has the dangerous ability to step outside the three-point arc and sink the long ball. Thomas leads the team with 120 three-point tries this season but the preseason All-American also connects on a team-best 41.7 percent of those shots.
“Physically, he’s — whatever he’s listed at, you can add four more inches,” head coach Bo Ryan said at his Monday press conference. “It’s like (Minnesota forward Trevor) Mbakwe, whatever he’s listed at, add five or six more inches because of his wing span. Thomas can score in a lot of different ways, and that’s what makes him a real threat.”
In a weekend victory over then-No. 12 Minnesota, Wisconsin limited the hyper-athletic Mbakwe — whose offensive game is much less refined than Thomas’ — to eight points and 10 boards.
While Thomas is the lifeblood of Thad Matta’s squad, the most challenging Buckeye to game plan for offensively is 2012 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Craft. The pesky junior guard will torment the young backcourt duo of Traevon Jackson and George Marshall, as well as the more experienced Ben Brust.
Craft is the rare type of player who can single-handedly disrupt an opponent’s offensive rhythm, evidenced by his two steals per game. What he lacks in scoring (8.8 ppg) the lockdown defender makes up for as a distributor, with 4.7 assists per game, second best in the Big Ten.
Compensating for Craft’s lack of offensive production in the backcourt is junior guard Lenzelle Smith, Jr. Smith posts 10.2 points per game and shoots a steady-handed 43.8 percent on the year.
But for a Wisconsin team that has shown itself to have Ryan’s defensive principles coursing through its veins, the key to a road upset may sit in the Badgers’ own hands. UW has shot only 33.3 percent over a two-game stretch where it has failed to total 50 points in a single contest.
Berggren — who still leads the team with 12 points per game — has captained that downward trend, failing to reach double figures since claiming his first career double-double four games ago against Illinois.
Despite shooting 28.4 percent over his last four games — comfortably below his season average of 50.1 percent — Ryan said the fifth-year senior forward is taking the right shots.
“He needs to get a game here or a flourish of hitting some free throws, getting to the glass, getting a put-back or two, hitting a three because he is a good pick-and-pop guy for a big man,” Ryan said. “He just needs to get something positive going.”
After seeing non-contact action in practice Sunday, Ryan said he is still not sure if 6-foot-11 forward Frank Kaminsky will return to the lineup against the Buckeyes. Kaminsky has been considered a game time decision for the tip off in Columbus, set for 6 p.m.