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Big Game Analysis: Ohio State vs. Wisconsin...By S. H. Austin

I was about 80% through my research for this game when it dawned on me that some bad omens were in place.

This is technically a #1 vs. #2 matchup in the polls...or even a "battle of #1's" if you want to create a war between the sportswriter's poll and the coach's poll. The luster was drained from all of that hype earlier this week when Wisconsin lost on the road at Michigan State. The Badgers will likely drop out of the top two in the polls because of that loss even if they beat Ohio State Sunday afternoon.

The good news is that we've been saved from an endless weekend of "game of the century" hype from the networks. A #1 vs. #2 matchup this late in the season is pretty rare. You typically don't have two top five teams from the same conference like this playing each other in late February. Even if you do, they're probably not in the top two spots. Wisconsin showed again the other night how hard it can be on the road in league play with a target on your back.

What are the omens I was talking about?

The more I played around with the data, the more I remembered Ohio State/Michigan in football back in November. That was a #1 vs. #2 game that WAS endlessly hyped by the media. The game lived up to the billing because the two teams were a good match for each other. It turned out that both teams were significantly overrated in terms of where they stood in the national picture. They weren't really the best two teams in the country. It just seemed that way at the time because we had such a limited sample to draw upon.

*Ohio State would go on to get slaughtered in the national championship game by Florida. Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith looked like a statue of himself in the pocket. He was slow in his reads and decision-making. Pundits picking Ohio State to cover that game realized by the second quarter that they must have been delusional.

*Michigan was surprisingly uncompetitive with USC in the Rose Bowl. This is a program that's known for playing exciting bowl games even if they're overly conservative in the regular season. Not this time around. Michigan couldn't move the ball until USC relaxed with a big lead.

Both teams missed expectations by a mile. Both teams were from the Big Ten. Both teams were far and away the best two teams in a down year in that conference. Both teams were exposed once they got out of conference play.

Let's move to basketball. The Big Ten is having a down year in this sport as well. The 11 conference teams as a composite are a stunning 16-56 against teams ranked in the top 25 of the USA Today computer rankings. The conference ranks fourth out of the "big six" power leagues.

Here's how the NCAA tournament contenders from the Big Ten have done vs. top 25 teams in that USA Today computer summary:

Ohio State: 3-3
Wisconsin: 2-2
Michigan State: 1-4
Indiana: 3-4
Purdue: 2-6
Illinois: 2-6

The first two teams on the list are competing for #1 seeds, yet are only playing .500 ball against top 25 caliber opposition. The next two teams, Michigan State and Indiana, are shoe-ins for the dance, and will probably be seeded in the 5-7 range depending on what happens the rest of the way. Purdue and Illinois are probably sitting on the right side of the bubble right now. Depending on what happens the rest of the way, they would probably be seeded in the 8-10 range. That 4-12 combined record for them vs. good teams doesn't bode well for the future though.

In fact, nothing in those listings bodes well for the tourney. If you must win six "coin flip" games go to all the way (five if you're a number one seed with a first round laydown), it's hard to do that with worse than a coin flip record in your big games. I think the chances are very good that we're going to see a replay of the football scenario. Once March Madness begins, neither Ohio State nor Wisconsin is going to strike you as being head and shoulders above other teams in the top 20. They belong there to be certain. But are they so good that either should have garnered a #1 national ranking? We may be seeing soft conference illusions rear their heads once again.

As this was registering with me, an article themed about how relatively evenly matched Ohio State and Wisconsin were started moving toward a "let's not get deluded again" storyline.

*Ohio State is 25-3 this year, but played a very weak non-conference schedule followed by a relatively easy conference slate. Roster-wise, they didn't become the team they are now until after road losses at North Carolina (98-89) and Florida (86-60). But, they were pretty close to being what the media was calling "championship material" in a lethargic 68-66 non-conference TV win over Tennessee, and in a loss to Wisconsin in the previous meeting. This is a roster that is certifiably better than mediocre teams. It has yet to establish vs. top competition that it really belongs near the top of the national rankings.

The Ohio State football team was like that. An early season road win at Texas looked great on paper. Texas didn't set the world on fire the rest of the year, and was lucky to win its bowl game as a big favorite. The Ohio State basketball team has LESS of a big win pedigree than the football team did at a similar stage in the season.

*Wisconsin is 26-3 this year, but has also shown a tendency to stub its toe at bad times. The Badgers lost an early season neutral court game to Missouri State 66-64. They were lucky to get by Winthrop in overtime in a home game. The first game with Ohio State almost saw a massive choke job as the Badgers blew a big lead late by repeatedly missing free throws. Then, this week, with a chance to set the stage for the most hyped game in regular season campus history, they gagged on the road at Michigan State.

I do want to note that Wisconsin does have some big results in non-conference action. They played a more impressive schedule than Ohio State did, and scored victories over highly regarded Pittsburgh (home) and Marquette (road). They also beat Florida State by 15 points, a win that looks good in the computers because FSU is getting a lot of stat respect. FSU beat Duke on the road.

If Wisconsin hadn't gagged the last three minutes of the first meeting, the evidence would have been fairly solid that they were the better team.

Wisconsin 72, Ohio State 69
Wisconsin 45%, Ohio State 38% shooting
Wisconsin 5 treys, Ohio State 12 treys
Wisconsin 17 of 29 free throws, Ohio State 11 of 18 free throws

That stat combo means that Wisconsin was controlling the inside game. They were shooting very well when working the ball. Ohio State needed to go bombs away to have a chance to stay close. In fact, Ohio State won three-pointers by 21 points in a game they couldn't win straight up. That stat tells you what Wisconsin was doing inside. If Wisconsin would have made its share of free throws late, it would have been an 8-10 point win. If they would have made them all, it might have been a double-digit win.

Give Ohio State credit for battling. Just remember that it took a dozen made treys (far from a sure thing to repeat) and a Wiscy free throw collapse for the game to be close in the final minutes.

Combine that with "big game" results from both teams' slates, and it's easy to picture Wisconsin as being the team that's going to have better results head-to-head more often than not. If you NEED to hit treys to win and cover, the percentages aren't in your favor over a larger sampling of games. Ohio State has managed to avoid playing a large sampling of "big" games this year. All we know for certain is that they're consistently better than the mediocre teams they've been facing. That's how an "A-" team can create the illusion that they're an "A+" team in the computers and in the polls.

Ohio State's performance Sunday, and in the later rounds of the upcoming Big Ten tournament will give us a better sense of where the team really stands. We may not know for sure until the second or third round of the Big Dance, after the Buckeyes have faced tests on neutral courts from outside the league.

I compiled some numbers for you. No reason to leave those out even though the theme has turned about 45 degrees. The data might shed some light on what turn out to be illusions down the road.

Ohio State is #3 in the RPI
Ohio State is #4 in the USA Today
Ohio State is #5 at

Wisconsin is #6 in the RPI
Wisconsin is #7 in the USA Today
Wisconsin is #8 at

Note that this isn't a complete replay of the football scenario. Ohio State was a consensus #1 in the nation in the computers even though it would turn out later that they might not have been top two in the SEC. Michigan showed well in the computers too. Here, neither team is seen as top two by any of the most used or respected metrics. Personally, I think Ohio State's lack of results vs. big time opponents should penalize them more than it has.

OFFENSIVE EFFICIENCY (points per possession)
Ohio State ranks 3rd in the nation on offense, but 18th on defense
Wisconsin ranks 10th in the nation on offense, and 12th on defense

Teams who like to shoot three-pointers can show very well in this category because the hot-shooting games just blow the doors off the stats. Your points-per-possession go way up when you're hitting bombs. The problem is, this isn't a consistent way to score. You look really mortal on the days the bombs aren't falling. Teams who emphasize inside play and defense put up more consistent results in big games. Teams who emphasize perimeter play alternate blowout wins with losses.

On a neutral floor, I'd rather have Wisconsin regardless of what all the computer stuff is saying. I believe that if you flip-flopped schedules, the teams would probably flip flop where they stood in the computer rankings. Both play strong defense, though Wisconsin's a bit better. Both are very efficient on offense by national standards. Ohio State relies more on three-pointers to get the job done in that area. To me, that's been proven to be a negative in recent seasons. Efficient teams that emphasize inside play win in March. If you need three's to put you over the top, strong opposing defenses and big game pressure will cause those shots to clang off the rim more often than not.

Sunday's game will be played at Ohio State, making it a virtual pick-em to me. readers want opinions, so I'll pick Wisconsin to win outright by a bucket. No line has been posted as I write this. Recent spread history suggests Ohio State would be a favorite of three to four points, unless the public overreacts to Wisconsin's loss to Michigan State and pounds the home favorite.

Wisconsin 62, Ohio State 60.

Who do you like in the big game? Share your thoughts in our Mess Hall Forum!

And, in a few weeks, be careful about asking one or both of these teams to go deep in your March Madness office pools. Being one of the best teams in the Big 10 just doesn't mean what it used to, in any sport.

S.H. Austin

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