In a campaign of highs and lows, Ohio State’s final game at the Schottenstein Center this year is also its biggest test. A regular-season finale against Wisconsin serves as a barometer for the Buckeyes, who are trying to gauge whether they possess the chops to make a run in the postseason.
First, they must see how they hold on their own against the Badgers, the Big Ten champions and a team that is expected to compete for a spot in the Final Four.
"I think it’ll be a good indicator,” senior forward Sam Thompson said. “Wisconsin’s obviously a great team. They’re a tournament-tested team, they’re a team that — since we came in — that’s been one of the teams that’s stayed at the top of the Big Ten. So I think it’ll be good to see where we are heading into the postseason tournaments.”
Under the direction of Bo Ryan, Wisconsin has bloomed into a basketball power in the Big Ten. Last year, his squad powered through the NCAA Tournament before losing to Kentucky by one point in the Final Four last year.
Thad Matta, the Ohio State coach, suggested this season’s team might be better.
“I don’t know how many times we’ve played Wisconsin in the time I’ve been here, but it’s just another Wisconsin basketball team that is very very talented — maybe one of the best ones I’ve seen,” he said.
It’s been more than a year since Ohio State played the Badgers (which the Buckeyes won, 59-58, in Madison). Yet there is a certain and distinct similarity between these two teams that have tussled at the top of the Big Ten for conference supremacy.
“They’re a very talented team, they don’t make a lot of mistakes really,” said Shannon Scott, the senior point guard. “They’re a team we need to be patient with, we can’t try to force anything, we can’t make any careless plays because they’ll take advantage of it. So we’ve got to take care of the ball.”
“They’re a basketball team that’s very very sound in terms of what they do. And defensively, what you see is what you get. They’re just going to sit and keep you in front and wall you up and get physical.”
It’s why Sunday afternoon’s bout in Columbus should prove to be something of a gauge for an Ohio State team that has won eight of its last 11 games — including a blowout triumph over Maryland last month at home — but lost to teams like Michigan, Michigan State, Louisville and North Carolina.
This is why, Matta said, he plays down the importance of the game against the Badgers.
“I think I’ve learned over time, if you said at the beginning and you start to look ahead and say, ‘Hey we’ve arrived’ and then the next game you show up and drop an egg — how many times do you see that happen?” he said.
“So I think that’s why I’ve always tried to stay sort of in the moment if you will in terms of day by day because there’s no guarantee anymore in terms of, yeah we’re playing better basketball right now. Can we take a step forward? Yes. But we can take a step backward, too. That’s just sort of the human nature.”
Thompson added: “We always say that it’s too late now to being taking steps back, we have to really be hitting our stride and playing our best basketball and tomorrow’s another opportunity to do that against a great team.”
And inside the comfortable confines of the Schottenstein Center, the Buckeyes have been hard for opponents to topple. They are 18-1 here.
Because of this, there is a sense of hope that abounds in Columbus on the eve the last home game for seniors Thompson, Scott and centers Amir Williams and Trey McDonald.
“We want to be a class that was thought to have left the program in a better condition than we found it. Obviously coach Matta had great success before we got here, we want to continue that success.”
“I think we want to be a class that made the Final Four twice, a lot of players in the NCAA can never say that,” Scott said. “If we can find a way to be able to do that, that would be a great accomplishment.”
It’s a bold statement for a team that seems to have much to prove. A win against Wisconsin would help their cause.