Just under a year ago today, Jordan Taylor set the Kohl Center on fire.Taylor’s improbable, incredible second-half explosion against Ohio State keyed one of the biggest wins in Wisconsin basketball history, as the Badgers ended the Buckeyes’ undefeated run and knocked off the nation’s top-ranked team for only the second time in school history. The win propelled Taylor to a season of veritable super-stardom, embarrassing the folks at Cousy Award Headquarters into hastily sneaking Taylor’s name into the list of finalists.
Taylor’s presence on that same list this season, despite a decrease in production nearly across the board, speaks to the legacy he built with that barrage of points last February. It also evokes the ultimate truth of this game: for Wisconsin to pull of another stunning upset, Jordan Taylor will have to be the player who literally defined the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame’s oversight. Taylor’s shooting this season has been inconsistent at best, and he’s not always getting a lot of help from the rest of the roster. Without another consistent offensive threat like Jon Leuer to take some of the pressure off, Taylor has regularly been forced into contested, clock-ticking-down shots or drives. The Badgers’ offense has been inexorably tied to its three-point shooting, of which Taylor accounts for roughly 22 percent.
But you already knew about Jordan Taylor. And while my instinct is that an excellent game from Jordan Taylor is necessary for victory, it’s probably not sufficient. Nor is Taylor’s ability to thrive against an exceptional defender like Aaron Craft a variable independent from the rest of the team. He’ll need help. That means efficient shooting from the likes of Ben Brust and Josh Gasser, plus a return to the scrappy, offensive-rebounding-happy ways of Mike Bruesewitz–the same guy who plunged the dagger-three into OSU’s heart last year.
He’ll also need somebody to slow down star forward Jared Sullinger, who averaged 20.5 points and 10 rebounds in his two games against Wisconsin last season. He’s a bit undersized, meaning Ryan Evans could get the call (he’s been Wisconsin’s best defender for much of the year, though his overall play has sagged a bit in conference), but he’s hardly a player any one defender can check. There’s also sure to be some Jared-on-Jared violence, and Wisconsin would be wise to exert a little pressure on the Ohio State front-line by attacking them with Berggren’s size–at 6-9, Sullinger is the tallest player to garner meaningful minutes for OSU. Perhaps Frank Kaminsky could earn a little time as a floor-stretching big man?
The Buckeyes are still built around Sullinger, with William Buford and Deshaun Thomas operating as his main sidekicks. Buford shot 10-18 in Madison last year, and his 21 points actually led the team. But the Badgers did a good job of minimizing the damage from everybody else. In fact, both teams excel at neutralizing opponent scoring methods: The Badgers boast the nation’s top field-goal defense, while the Buckeyes rank in the top-5 in both defensive rebounding and forcing turnovers. Neither team is likely to put you on the foul line–this isn’t likely to be a free-throw show.
While the Badgers claimed victory last year largely on the back of 12-24 shooting from behind the arc, their defense might be the most important element this season. That certainly includes controlling the pace. Ohio State has been playing much faster this season, increasing their average possessions per game to about 69, up from 65 last year. The Badgers held the game to a comfortably lethargic 58 possessions last year, and I’d imagine they have every intention of doing the same this season. But pace isn’t everything–the Badgers got obliterated in Columbus less than a month later in a game that also featured 58 possessions. It’s how they use those possessions that counts. Or rather, it’s how they control Ohio State’s possessions. Limiting transition opportunities will be key.
One thing is certain: there will be no lack of motivation for either team. A Wisconsin victory could give them the outright conference lead, albeit by only a half-game. A loss would drop them back into the melee of teams jockeying for position behind the Buckeyes. If you dare look behind the concrete and the measurable; if you value the spirit, aesthetics, intangible bragging rights, or whatever you want to call it of college basketball, the Badgers are playing for their metaphorical proof of life in the Big Ten. The mystique of the Kohl Center has suffered a few blows. Jordan Taylor has lost some of his star power. There was a time this season when, foolish as it may have been, people questioned whether Wisconsin’s consecutive NCAA Tournament streak would meet its end this season.
Nothing a little Buckeye-smashing can’t take care of.