Wisconsin—ranked No. 15 in the Associated Press poll and No. 3 in the RPI—has built its success upon depth, versatility and star quality early season performances from forward Alando Tucker and point guard Kammron Taylor.
Despite the fact that UW's nine-man rotation includes three sophomores and two true freshmen, the Badgers are playing like a veteran bunch.
"I think we're coming together faster than I know a lot of people thought," Taylor said. "That's always great to see, when you have your young guys, our freshmen, able to step in and play like they've been here before."
Wisconsin's strengths will be put to the test Wednesday night with the Badgers visiting No. 19 Ohio State (12-2, 2-2). The Buckeyes boast four senior starters in a veteran lineup, including center Terence Dials, who has picked up steam recently and again looks like a player with the potential to dominate a game.
What truly makes the 6-foot-9, 260-pound Dials dangerous, however, are OSU's perimeter shooters. The Buckeyes' rotation includes seven legitimate threats to knock down the 3-point shot.
"They put a lot of pressure on you," UW assistant coach Greg Gard said. "You have to make a choice here. Do you protect the rim and give extra help to Dials and maybe lose a shooter on the perimeter? Or do you tighten up and really extend things on the perimeter and leave Dials one-on-one inside? It's kind of a double-edged sword that you're dealing with."
The perimeter shooting barrage is led by senior guard Je'Kel Foster, who has made 37 of 75 triples this season (49 percent) and an incredible 57 percent of his shots overall. As a team, OSU is shooting 42 percent from beyond the arc. The other three starters are all shooting 40 percent or better on 3s: sophomore point guard Jamar Butler (20 of 43; 47 percent), senior guard J.J. Sullinger (14 of 32; 44 percent) and senior forward Matt Sylvester (14 of 35; 40 percent).
"You just have to try to try to make the best of both worlds," Gard said. "You have to give as much as help as you can (on Dials) and really chase shooters hard and be cognizant of where they are because everybody they throw on the floor, for the most part, is a 3-point threat.
"And they've added some other things. They've gotten some players that can create off the dribble. And if you do get too extended there (are) bigger gaps to attack. They do a great job of finding each other and really playing well together."
Dials leads the team with 14.9 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. His numbers have dropped off from his breakout junior season, but that is due in part to the plethora of scoring options around him. And recently Dials has been on a roll, connecting on 60 percent of his shots and scoring 18.3 points per game in his last seven outings.
"He's a big, strong guy, who is pretty good once he gets the ball in the post," said center Jason Chappell, one of the Badgers will be entrusted with defending Dials. "I guess the main thing about him is just to try just not to let him catch it in the post… Once he catches it, try to make him score over you rather than getting a direct path to the basket."
Foster is second at OSU with 14.6 per game, followed by Bowling Green transfer Ron Lewis. The team's sixth-man, Lewis, a 6-3 junior guard, is third on the team in scoring (12.6 points per game) and fifth in minutes (25.7 per game).
Butler runs the show, leading the Big Ten with a 3.7 assist-to-turnover ratio while averaging 8.8 points per game. Sullinger contributes 10.2 points and 7.1 rebounds a game and Sylvester is averaging 7.4 points.
While the Buckeyes are averaging about 80 points per game this season, Gard said he is just as impressed with OSU's defense.
"I think that's the one thing that I've noticed," Gard said. "They are a better team, which should come obviously with Coach (Thad) Matta being there for a year, and they've been through practices and understand drills and they've had some experience with how he wants to play. Defensively, they've definitely improved."
Meanwhile, Wisconsin has been executing coach Bo Ryan's systems well and has played with a great deal of confidence all season.
"We just want to continue to keep listening to coach and just continue to do the little things," Taylor said. "We don't want to get ahead of ourselves because we know we have a tough game coming up."
"I knew we could it," Taylor added. "People might not believe us when we say we knew we could it when the season first started, but it was just something about this team, starting last summer when everybody was here, that it just felt like it was going to be a special season."
The Badgers depth has been a problem for opponents all season and that could very well be the case again Wednesday. OSU, though, has nine players averaging at least nine minutes per game, and probably comes closest to matching up against Wisconsin in this regard than any conference opponent the Badgers have played thus far.
Dials can be a load in the paint, but Wisconsin's post defense has been very strong this season. It helps that UW has four capable bodies rotating at the ‘4' and ‘5' positions in 6-11 sophomores Brian Butch and Greg Stiemsma, 6-10 junior Jason Chappell and 6-7 freshman Marcus Landry. The emergence of 6-6 freshman forward Joe Krabbenhoft has given UW uncommon versatility, allowing the Badgers to match up with a rather big, or a relatively small, lineup. That could be key in dealing with OSU.
"I just like the… distribution of the minutes so far in different games, and of guys not complaining, not getting down, not getting too happy with ‘Oh boy, I got X number of minutes this game, I'm sure I'll get that the next game,'" Ryan said. "Each game presents a different a situation. The thing I'm most pleasantly surprised with is how these guys have helped and subbed and worked for one another, and taken care of their minutes when they are on the floor."
Badger Nation prognostication: Dials will not dominate this game, but he will have better luck inside than any other post player UW has faced in the Big Ten this season. The reason has as much to do with OSU's 3-point shooters as with Dials. The Buckeyes were cold against MSU in Sunday's double-overtime loss, but they have been hot for most of the season and could make life very difficult for the visiting Badgers.
Our pick: Ohio State 74, Wisconsin 70
What: No. 15 Wisconsin (14-2 overall, 4-0 Big Ten) at No. 19 Ohio State (12-2, 2-2).
When: Wednesday, Jan. 18 at 7:35 p.m. Central
Site: Value City Arena (18,500) in Columbus, Ohio.
Broadcasts: ESPN2 will televise the game live. The Wisconsin Radio Network will carry the game live.
Series notes: Ohio State leads the all-time series 80-61, including a 49-20 advantage in Columbus… Wisconsin, however, has a five-game winning streak versus the Buckeyes and has won seven of the past eight meetings… In its last seven games against the Badgers, Ohio State has averaged 55.1 points per game.