Previewing Wisconsin-Ohio State: All Eyes on Deshaun ThomasPosted by jnowak on January 29th, 2013
Here are a few coinciding items pertinent to Tuesday night’s Wisconsin-Ohio State game:
- Wisconsin is one of the best defensive teams in the Big Ten.
- Ohio State’s Deshaun Thomas is one of the best, if not the best, scorer in the Big Ten.
- Beyond Thomas, Ohio State doesn’t have much consistent scoring to rely upon.
That, in a nutshell, is what to keep an eye on Tuesday when the two teams meet in Columbus. Wisconsin has been an enigma this season, struggling through most of its non-conference schedule before apparently getting its act together at the beginning of Big Ten play. But they’ve suffered some puzzling losses while also managing to win back-to-back games without eclipsing 50 points for the first time in 16 years. Ohio State, meanwhile, has won most of the games it’s been expected to, but faltered in most of the marquee match-ups. In a talent-laden conference like this one, that’s not going to get them very far this year. But on a smaller scale, let’s take a slightly closer look at Ohio State’s Deshaun Thomas conundrum and how it impacts both these teams.
There are essentially two ways you can play Ohio State. You can let Thomas get somewhere around his scoring average — he scores a Big Ten-best 20.0 PPG — while limiting the rest of the Buckeyes. Lenzelle Smith Jr., LaQuinton Ross and Sam Thompson are all possible second scoring options (with all due respect to Aaron Craft, who is a terrific point guard, but that is not his role), though none have performed with any consistency. Only one of them averages in double-figures (Smith, just barely, with 10.2 PPG) and, consequently, the Buckeyes are one of just two conference teams without two players in the Big Ten’s top 30 in scoring (Purdue is the other). Yes, Penn State, winless in Big Ten play, has two players in the league’s top seven. And Nebraska, nearly as bad as the Nittany Lions, has three in the top 20. But I digress.
The second way to play Ohio State is to focus on Thomas, take him out of the game the way some teams have been able to (look at Kansas in the Final Four last season, and to an extent again this year) while letting the supporting cast exceed its average. Meaning, try to limit Thomas to somewhere between 10 and 15 points while forcing players like Smith, Thompson and Craft to beat their averages. The team to have the most success against Thomas this season, actually, was Penn State on Saturday, who limited Thomas to 11 points in the Buckeyes’ 65-51 win (though Thomas’ limited 29 minutes likely had something to do with it).
Consider this: In Ohio State’s four losses this season — at Duke, against Kansas, at Illinois and at Michigan State — Thomas averaged 21 PPG, just a point above his average. In the Buckeyes’ 15 wins, Thomas has averaged 19.73 PPG, just a hair below his average. So, conventional wisdom would say that the best way to beat the Buckeyes is to allow Thomas to get his while limiting his teammates. In those four losses, the Buckeyes have had a total of four double-figure scoring performances from their supporting cast, and no more than Shannon Scott’s 15 against Kansas. So it seems that’s a challenge they’ve not yet been able to accept.
So what can we expect from Wisconsin on Tuesday? As I alluded to, the Badgers are the Big Ten’s No. 1 scoring defense (54.8 PPG allowed), while it should be noted that the Buckeyes rest in the top five of the conference’s main offensive categories. Wisconsin is No. 7 in field goal and three-point defense, and near the middle of the pack in steals, blocks and defensive rebounding. They’re not as ferocious defensively as, say, Michigan State or Indiana, but they slow the game down and points come at a premium.
What’s particularly intriguing about tonight’s match-up is the myriad of defensive options Bo Ryan has at his disposal. Four of the Badgers’ best or most experienced players are all listed as forwards, like Thomas — 6’6″ senior Ryan Evans, 6’7″ freshman Sam Dekker, 6’6″ senior Mike Bruesewitz and 6’10” senior Jared Berggren. I’d bet each of them get a chance on Thomas, with Evans and Dekker arguably the most athletic of the two. Thomas, of course, can play smaller and faster than most of his similarly-sized counterparts, with his three-point shooting percentage spiking from 35 to 42 percent since last year. With the exception of Illinois, each of those four teams that beat Ohio State this season has an excellent frontcourt. In those four games, Thomas responded by stepping out and shooting a healthy 45 percent from three-point range. He took a season-high 11 treys against Michigan State.
So there’s no secret that Thomas is the focal point of Ohio State’s offense every game. No doubt he’ll also be the focal point of Bo Ryan’s defensive scouting report for tonight’s key game as well.