Basketball Preview: Ohio State Travels to Madison for Rematch with Surging Wisconsin

By Griffin Strom on January 13, 2022 at 8:35 am
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Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch/USA TODAY NETWORK

Having déjà vu?

Although the contest took place more than a month ago, Ohio State last faced Wisconsin just four games back due to the Buckeyes’ COVID-19 pause. Now two of the four highest-ranked teams in the Big Ten will run it back in Madison on Thursday as Ohio State plays its first repeat opponent of the 2021-22 season.

#13 Wisconsin (13-2, 4-1 B1G) Kohl Center 7 p.m. ESPN2

In their last meeting with the Badgers, the Buckeyes put together one of their most impressive performances of the season in a 73-55 win that emboldened E.J. Liddell to declare Ohio State was one of the top teams in the country. But the Buckeyes weren’t able to carry that momentum forward, as their next three games were canceled amid the aforementioned pause. The Buckeyes are 2-1 since returning to action, with wins against Nebraska and Northwestern and a loss to Indiana, but 13th-ranked Wisconsin could present a stiffer challenge than any of those teams.

“It might have been as well as we’ve played all year,” Chris Holtmann said Wednesday about the first meeting. “I think you could certainly put that game up there with the Duke and the Seton Hall games in terms of how well we played. … They’ve only lost once this year with (Johnny) Davis, their All-American, in the lineup, and that was at our place. Got a lot of respect for them as a team, Greg’s done a tremendous job with them this year. They’re physically at home.”

The Badgers have not lost since falling to the Buckeyes on Dec. 11, rattling off five straight wins including three in a row over conference foes entering Thursday. The best win on Wisconsin’s résumé has also come during this stretch, as the Badgers beat No. 3 Purdue, 74-69, at Mackey Arena on Jan. 3.

Now Wisconsin has a chance to prove its last game against the Buckeyes, one of just two losses it has suffered all season, was nothing more than a fluke occurrence. In turn, Ohio State will try to show that it has fully returned to form after shaking off rust in the past few outings.

Three Things To Watch For

Chris Holtmann, Ryan Pedon back on the sideline

After testing positive for COVID-19 this past Saturday, Holtmann and assistant coach Ryan Pedon were both ruled unavailable for Sunday’s game against Northwestern. Assistant coach Jake Diebler stepped in as acting head coach, and the Buckeyes’ 95-87 win rendered the coaching absences a non-factor. But Holtmann and Pedon are expected to be back on the sideline for Ohio State on Thursday, even though it will be Holtmann’s first day back with the team.

Which Buckeye offense will show up?

Ohio State has run the full gamut of offensive production in the past two games, turning in its worst performance by many metrics against Indiana before roaring back with the most points the team has scored since 2019 on Sunday. Wisconsin has the third-best scoring defense in the league (64.9 points per game), but Northwestern’s defense had a similar mark before the Buckeyes hung 95 on it.

Will Wisconsin knock down threes?

As successful as the Badgers have been in Big Ten play, some of their numbers on offense do anything but reflect that success. Wisconsin shoots the worst percentage from the floor (41.6) in the entire league, and the Badgers are the second-worst 3-point shooting club in the conference at 29.3 percent. They have also made the third-fewest shots from downtown (6.5 per game) among Big Ten teams, while the Buckeyes are on the opposite end of the spectrum with the third-most makes (9.3) on average. Wisconsin shot just 6-for-26 from 3-point range last time out against the Buckeyes, and a more productive day from deep could be crucial for the Badgers.

Three Important Buckeyes

E.J. Liddell

What better way to break out of a slump than with a career-best performance? Liddell torched the Wildcats for 34 points on Sunday, the most of his career, and scored 17 of Ohio State’s first 19 to start the game. Given that Liddell shot 5-for-26 in the two previous games, his outing against Northwestern no doubt produced a sigh of relief from Buckeye fans far and wide. Ohio State won’t play a game this season in which its star forward is not crucial to the end result, and that’s no different going into this one.

Malaki Branham

Averaging 24 points per game in the last three, the true freshman has emerged as a true second option offensively for the Buckeyes. Branham’s consistency as a scorer will become more important for Ohio State after what he’s shown himself capable of, but his defense will also be a major factor in this game. Holtmann said Branham must play better defensively in his second crack at Wisconsin’s Davis, who scored 24 against the Buckeyes last time out.

“It’s gonna be a big challenge for Malaki,” Holtmann said. “Malaki has to be better in this game, and it’s a lot to ask of a freshman, because he’s gonna be guarding an All-American, and then hopefully he’ll continue to play at such a really high level that Malaki’s played at.”

Justin Ahrens

Ohio State’s foremost 3-point marksman had his worst performance of the season against Northwestern. Ahrens finished a game scoreless for the first time all year, and shot 0-for-5 from three while most of his teammates were red hot in the 95-point collective effort. Ahrens is now averaging just four points and shooting 20 percent from three in the last four games for the Buckeyes. In Ohio State’s three losses this season, Ahrens has scored six or fewer points, while the Buckeyes have won every time he’s entered double digits.

Three Important Badgers

Player Position Height Weight Stats
CHUCKY HEPBURN G 6-2 211 7.3 PPG, 2.1 APG
BRAD DAVISON G 6-4 200 14.5 PPG, 4.2 RPG
JOHNNY DAVIS G 6-5 194 22.3 PPG, 7.4 RPG
TYLER WAHL F 6-9 221 10.2 PPG, 5.3 RPG
STEVEN CROWL C 7-0 234 8.7 PPG, 4.7 RPG

Johnny Davis

The 6-foot-5 guard that Holtmann said has “emerged as a lottery pick” will be priority No. 1 for the Ohio State defense on Thursday. Davis had 24 of Wisconsin’s 55 points against the Buckeyes last time out, and he’s averaging 22.3 points and 7.4 rebounds on the season. Davis’ best game to date came in an upset win against then-No. 3 Purdue at home on Jan. 3, when the sophomore went off for 37 points and pulled down 14 boards. A performance like that would likely be a difficult one to overcome for Ohio State, although Davis will need more help than he got from his teammates in the first matchup with the Buckeyes.

Brad Davison

Averaging 14.5 points per game for the season, the veteran Badger guard continues his career-best campaign, having scored at least 11 points in five of the past six games. Davison started off hot from the 3-point line against Ohio State on Dec. 11 before cooling off the rest of the way, but a bigger night from Wisconsin’s second scoring option could make the Badgers a much tougher out.

“It does really begin and end with Davis and Davison for those guys,” Holtmann said. “They’ve had a tremendous season so far, for sure. It’s gonna be as big a challenge as we’ve played all year.”

Tyler Wahl

One Badger in particular who has stepped up amid Wisconsin’s five-game win streak is third-year big man Tyler Wahl, who is averaging 14.6 points per game on 65 percent shooting since the loss to the Buckeyes. In the 10 games before that, Wahl was averaging just eight points per game on 41.3 percent shooting. Wisconsin’s starting bigs combined for just three points and three boards against Ohio State in the last matchup, and it’s safe to say it’ll take more than that to get revenge on the Buckeyes.

How It Will Play Out

Line: Wisconsin -2.5, O/U 139

Wisconsin’s win streak is difficult to gauge. The Badgers beat Purdue on the road, but also only beat Nicholls State and Illinois State by a combined seven points at home in the same stretch. The Badgers’ one-point win over 8-7 Maryland this past Sunday isn’t all that impressive on paper either. But this will be a closer game than the first meeting no matter what, and Ohio State still hasn’t looked quite itself on both sides of the ball for a full game since returning from its COVID pause. Throw in the home floor advantage, and I’m taking the Badgers by a slim margin in this one.

Prediction: Wisconsin 74, Ohio State 71

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