Strangely, the Badgers have no one to blame but themselves for the resurgence of the Buckeyes these last few weeks.
It was Wisconsin’s 71-49 thrashing of Ohio State at the Kohl Center that several OSU players cited as the reason for their season turning around. It’s also the reason the Buckeyes (25-7) find themselves in their fifth consecutive Big Ten Championship game, this time against the upstart Badgers (23-10).
“I’m looking forward to another great game with the Badgers,” All-Big Ten junior forward Deshaun Thomas said. “The second game, we know they killed us. So now we’re going to try to come in, we’re going to have that on our shoulders, we’ll try to come in and play aggressive against them.”
That aggression was severely lacking in OSU’s last meeting with UW back on Feb. 17. The Badgers sliced through the Buckeyes’ defense like a hot knife to butter, shooting 52 percent from the field and at one point using an 18-0 run to exert their will. After the game Ohio State head coach Thad Matta voiced that if his team thought they could beat their opponents simply by outscoring them, they were not going to be a good basketball team.
“We didn’t play defense, we thought we were just going to have a bucket-for-bucket kind of war,” Smith said of the blowout loss. “We realize now that we have to play maximum level defense to beat anybody especially good teams in this conference, this being the best conference in the country. If we want to win games we have to bring our defense. And now we understand that.”
For Smith, he felt the game forced the team to reevaluate their roles and for some players, to accept those roles.
“Early on guys were questioning the coaches and questioning what we had to do and not listening and not wanting to accept their roles,” Smith said. “Everybody kind of, from the early on, heard “Ohio State needs a second scorer” so immediately everybody was like “I want to be that second scorer. I need to shoot more shots, I need to make more shots I want to get points.””
In reality, it’s not about that. It’s about coming together as a team and stopping the other team from scoring points and that’s all about defense. And now we realize that and we’re pulling our defense together when you have a defense like the type we do you don’t really have to score much.”
Something clicked after that loss for the Buckeyes. The team is now currently on the conference’s longest win streak, winning seven straight after the loss to the Badgers.
The Buckeyes used that reemphasized tenacity on defense to help edge out a win over Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals. Down one at halftime after allowing the Spartans to shoot 48 percent from the field in the first half, the Buckeyes clamped down, forcing just 30.4 percent shooting from their opponent in the second half en route to a 61-58 win.
Leading OSU to victory was junior point guard Aaron Craft, who was absolutely on fire. Hitting step back midrange shots and contested layups, Craft went 9-of-13 from the field to lead the Buckeyes with 20 points, his second-consecutive 20 point game against the Spartans. Craft’s offensive fireworks drew panic and help from MSU, but the high-intellect point guard distributed nine assists to counter any ideas of doubling him.
It’s that intelligent play that led to just five Ohio State turnovers on the night, allowing zero points on those turnovers.
“A lot of guys don’t respect his offensive game,” Thomas said. “I feel like his offensive game makes him one of the best point guards in the country.”
Craft is just happy to get another shot at the Badgers and point guard Traevon Jackson, who bested him the last time the two team’s met. Jackson scored 10 points and held Craft to just 2-of-9 shooting from the floor.
“He’s done a great job coming into his own,” Craft said of Jackson. “And no one really gives him a ton of credit because they’ve got other guys on the team but he’s taken it as it’s come and done what he’s needed to.”
One of those guys deflecting attention away from the solid play of Jackson is redshirt senior forward Ryan Evans, who has emitted an aura of excellence previously unforeseen in his final season with Wisconsin.
After thoroughly dominating Michigan, Evans went to work against Indiana’s Christian Watford, scoring 16 points to lead all scorers while dominating the glass for eight rebounds and swatting four shots.
Evans will have to face the monumental task of matching up with Thomas, the conference’s leading scorer. The last time the two faced off Thomas was slow out the gates but picked up the pace offensively in his team’s blow out loss, scoring 18 of his team’s 49 total points.
“He’s just being aggressive,” Thomas said of Evans’ play in the tournament. “We’re going to look through the scouting report. We know that Ryan Evans is so aggressive, we know he’ll do a lot of pump fakes, we’re aware of him on the offensive end.”
Now, the two team’s will face each other on the big stage at the United Center Sunday afternoon.
And for Ohio State, it’s all about payback.
“Ever since [the loss at Wisconsin] we’ve been on a mission to get back on our defensive edge and do what we have to do to win games,” Smith said. “I know coach and the rest of the team have been praying for another crack at them. We got our prayers answered and it happens to be for a championship.
“I don’t know how these guys feel but for me, this is personal.”