Expect Sunday's matchup between Ohio State and Wisconsin to be a defensive struggle.
Defense is ugly. It breaks up the rhythm of the game and inhibits free-flowing offenses. Irreverent to perception, the Buckeyes and the Badgers embrace it. Both programs will make their case for the top Big Ten defense when they face off 12:00 p.m. February 17 at the Kohl Center.
Even though the Big Ten’s identity is shifting, these two programs are stubbornly stuck in the past, both adamant that stymying the opponent's offense is the key to deep tournament runs.
Defense is the watermark of both of these programs which, aside from Ohio State's Deshaun Thomas, have no other top-20 scorers in the Big Ten. It’s the MO of coaches Matta and Ryan and the biggest reason why both programs are vying for the league title in the most difficult conference in college basketball.
Both play a grueling man-to-man style, determined to wear down the opponent and force them into bad shots. The Buckeyes are content to dare teams to beat them from the perimeter (which they rarely do), whereas the Badgers defend the three-point line religiously.
Both teams rebound well, have agile shot blockers and rank in the top-3 in the Big Ten in terms of scoring defense.
So whose philosophy is more effective and which team has the better overall defense?
Any examination of Ohio State’s defense begins and ends with their do-everything point guard, Aaron Craft. Not many players own a title like he does. Craft is, bar-none, the best on-ball defender in the Big Ten, if not the country.
At 6'2", he sits low to the ground, has good lateral quickness and is extremely cerebral. Most of Craft’s preparation begins in the film room, where he learns upcoming opponents’ tendencies so well that it becomes a back-and-forth game of chess.
In fact, he knows his opponents movements almost to a fault in that he occasionally over-pursues, unintentionally giving away his hand too early. No matter for Craft. His 1.9 steals per game is no fluke and it’s tough to quantify how many other possessions he has derailed with his relentless harassment.
The best part about Craft is that it’s not just his man that he accounts for. Sure, he’ll erase an opponent’s quickest guard, but he’s constantly canvassing the defensive sequence, waiting to jump into a charge off of help defense or strip an unsuspecting slasher.
Against Michigan on the road, he finished with three steals, one each from Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Nik Stauskas. I’d be willing to bet that he’d done film work on the latter two, just in case.
He’s a big reason why the Buckeyes shine at perimeter defense. Craft puts pressure on the facilitator almost immediately, making life easier for the other defenders.
Ohio State has a ton of athletic wings such as Lenzelle Smith Jr., LaQuinton Ross, Sam Thompson and Shannon Scott, all of whom can extend their defense far beyond the perimeter. With little depth in the post, the Buckeyes’ three-point defense is clearly by design.
The Buckeyes have a lot riding on sophomore center Amir Williams, whose 4.3 points and four rebounds per game are a bit underwhelming for a starter. He’s nowhere near as physical as some of the other Big Ten forwards such as Minnesota’s Trevor Mbakwe or Indiana’s Cody Zeller and he’s only an offensive threat on second-chance boards.
He does, however, excel at protecting the rim. His 39 blocks are fourth in the conference, according to BigTen.org, which is more impressive given that he plays just 17.1 minutes a game.
Williams, like many big men, struggles mightily with the high screen and opposing guards often seek to exploit it. He often either fails to communicate a switch, leaving his man open underneath the basket after a roll or cheats too high up on the dribbler, leaving a man open. His best bet would be to switch, force the dribbler to commit to a shot and step up to interfere with it.
The Buckeyes’ other forward Evan Ravenel is a wide-bodied forward who can occasionally be effective on the glass. But, against bigger, stronger frontcourts, the Buckeyes will almost always be at a disadvantage, as was the case in losses to Duke, Kansas and Michigan State earlier this season.
Take a look at how the Blue Devils exposed Ohio State's interior depth in the 73-68 win earlier this season.
Wisconsin’s brand of defense is in part a byproduct of its style on offense. Part of the point of holding the ball for the majority of the shot clock, as the Badgers do, is to wear out an opponent and make their offensive sets less efficient.
Slowing the game down works for the Badgers, who allow a league-low 56.5 points per game. Since Wisconsin aren't built to overcome large deficits, they make a point of dutifully defending the three-point line. In conference play, opponents have shot just 26.7 percent from beyond the arc, the lowest in the Big Ten.
All of coach Ryan’s players understand the formula, which is aided by the Badgers’ mobile big men. Forwards Ryan Evans and Mike Bruesewitz are capable perimeter defenders, oftentimes guarding smaller, quicker players. Because of this, the Badgers have excellent flexibility when switching on screens and rarely get trapped in bad mismatches.
With Ryan, team rebounding is a constant. Four Badgers, including guard Ben Brust, average at least five rebounds a game, which equates to their distinction of the most efficient defensive rebounding team in the Big Ten at 72.6 percent, according to KenPom.com.
Finally, every coach wishes they had a player like Bruesewitz, whose hustle and reckless abandon have saved Wisconsin numerous possessions this season. It shouldn’t be surprising that, of all players, Bruesewitz incurred a freak injury in preseason that nearly cost him his career. While trying to avoid a teammate, he fell on the backside of a practice hoop, slicing open his leg down to the bone, via ESPN's Andy Katz.
His recovery went extremely well and he was back in time for the season opener a month later. Bruesewitz then missed two non-conference games after suffering a concussion in an early-December practice. Injury-prone or not, Bruesewitz, like his counterpart Craft, is the heart of his team’s defense.
Year-in and year-out, the Badgers are among the top teams in the country at not turning the ball over. While obviously crucial to the offense, it also doesn’t give the opponent transition opportunities to catch the Badgers out of position.
But Wisconsin’s a three-point shooting team and long shots equal long rebounds. Teams love to push the ball on the Badgers if they can get an advantage off of long misses. The Badgers’ transition defense is really where they’re most vulnerable because it often leads to open threes for the other team or a foul, while trying to catch up.
Watch at the :27 second mark as Michigan's Trey Burke leads a break with three Badgers players trailing behind him.
Overall Advantage: Wisconsin
Both teams are excellent on defense and Sunday’s matchup at the Kohl Center will be a showcase in how to win ugly, regardless of which program comes out on top. Don’t expect either team to crack 60 points, well below both teams’ average.
The only thing Wisconsin’s defense doesn’t do is force turnovers. That’s because they don’t want to risk getting out of position and would rather take their chances defending a team straight up.
Wisconsin has good frontcourt depth with centers, as Jared Berggren and Frank Kaminsky both rebound well. Perhaps most importantly, though, the Badgers play desperate on the defensive end, out of necessity. The Badgers don’t have a go-to scorer like Ohio State’s Thomas and know that their key to victory is to defend.
Were it not for awful free-throw shooting, the Badgers would’ve taken down Michigan State earlier this season, after holding Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix to a combined four points and eight rebounds. By contrast, the Spartans took advantage of Ohio State’s interior size, racking up 22 points and nine rebounds from their two primary forwards.
Craft is an incredible defender, but the Buckeyes sorely lack a dominant post presence. It’s the Badgers’ balance that gives them the edge in this head-to-head matchup.