Welcome back, Buckeyes
This weekend, a burgeoning Big Ten rivalry takes a backseat to more pressing matters.With only one game in the loss column separating the two, No. 19 Wisconsin (18-5, 7-3) hosts No. 3 Ohio State (19-3, 7-2) Saturday afternoon at the Kohl Center with plenty more at stake than mere bragging rights. Depending on what happens elsewhere in the conference this weekend, an Ohio State loss could give the Big Ten four teams with three losses apiece.As usual, Wisconsin and Ohio State met twice last year, splitting each contest. The first came in Madison, when the Buckeyes were undefeated and the nation’s No. 1 team. A two-point Ohio State-lead at halftime ended in a 71-67 upset for Wisconsin, ranked No. 13 at the time, and sent much of the Kohl Center crowd charging to the court.Though the Buckeyes ultimately returned the favor in the last game of the regular season, a 93-65 thrashing in Columbus, Ohio, Wisconsin’s victory – handing Ohio State the first of only two losses on the season – and the subsequent court-storming became an indelible image of the 2010-11 season.“As far as what that has to do with this year, it’s zero impact on the game this year,” point guard Jordan Taylor said. “We’re a completely different team, they’re a completely different team. I think both our teams have different strengths than we did last year.”This year, both squads enter their matchup riding uplifting win streaks. Winners of six straight, the Badgers have reversed their positioning in the Big Ten following a troubling three-game losing streak in early January.Wisconsin traveled to Penn State Tuesday night and overcame a 23-17 first-half deficit by shooting 10-for-22 from the field in the second half of a 52-46 win. Point guard Jordan Taylor led the Badgers as usual, scoring 18 points and dishing out five assists, though his 4-for-12 shooting continued his downward trend from last season.“Every game means pretty much the same at this point; it’s a Big Ten game,” guard Josh Gasser said. “We’re just really happy with the position we’re in right now. Looking back at a few weeks ago, knowing that we’re in this position is a good feeling. We control our own destiny, so we’ve just got to take it game by game.”Ohio State, meanwhile, enters Saturday on a four-game winning streak after dispatching Michigan 64-49 last Sunday in Columbus. Sophomore guard Lenzelle Smith, Jr., continued his breakout season, leading all scorers with 17 points and also grabbing 12 rebounds. Three other Buckeye starters – forwards Jared Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas and guard William Buford – also scored in double figures to round out what is again one of the Big Ten’s most talented starting fives.Though both teams have proven capable of explosive shooting streaks – particularly the Badgers, who rank third in the Big Ten at 36.6 percent from 3-point range – Saturday’s game could boil down to a defensive battle. Wisconsin and Ohio State are the Big Ten’s top two defenses, allowing just 49.5 and 55.6 points per game, respectively. The Badgers are also tops in opposing field goal percentage at 36.2 percent, while the Buckeyes are third at 39.1.“It’ll be a grind-out game, definitely,” forward Mike Bruesewitz said. “I think it’ll just be the team that takes advantage of their opportunities, knocks down shots when they’re there. It’ll be another game of loose balls; it might be the team with the bloodiest jersey at the end who’s going to come out on top.”Sullinger, a consensus preseason All-American this year who was widely projected to be a lottery pick in April’s NBA Draft had he entered, remains Ohio State’s biggest name, but the most riveting battle could come between the two point guards. Taylor, though his scoring numbers are down from last year, still leads Wisconsin with 14.1 points and 4.3 assists per game. He’ll be matched up against Buckeye point guard Aaron Craft, a sophomore who averages 8.1 points and 5.0 assists per game.The 6-foot-2, 190-pound Craft might lack the strength of the 6-foot-1, 195-pound Taylor, but his quick hands have produced 2.4 steals per game, tops in the Big Ten.“He’s tenacious, man. He doesn’t quit,” Taylor said of Craft. “He seems like he never gets tired. You would think a guy who plays 35 minutes a game would get tired or maybe relax, but he’s just relentless. Obviously, he kind of spearheads their defensive effort.”Whether the game is indeed a defensive slug-out or a surprising shootout – Wisconsin’s scored as many as 77 points in Big Ten play while Ohio State’s eclipsed that total five separate times – last year’s developments don’t mean anything to a pair of teams eyeing a much bigger prize.With only a month left in Big Ten play and the conference standings as tight as possible, each loss greatly curtails any possible margin for error.“It’s a brand new 40 minutes,” Taylor said. “We’ve just got to try to find a way to neutralize a really good team again.”Ohio State – Wisconsin tips off Saturday at 1:00 pm CT on ESPN and ESPN3.