Concluding The Kohl Center Curse (Finally!)

The Ohio State Buckeyes have finally — finally! — won a game at Wisconsin’s Kohl Center.  They beat the Badgers today today, 58-52, in as tough and hard-fought a game as you would ever expect to see.

Jared Sullinger was a beast on the inside; he scored 24 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, and Wisconsin really had no answer for him.  Deshaun Thomas showed why he is one of the best forwards in the Big Ten, grabbing many rebounds and making some clutch buckets.  Aaron Craft played a standout defensive game against Badgers stud point guard Jordan Taylor, and made some key free throws to help ice the game, Lenzelle Smith, Jr., played a fine floor game, and William Buford — poor, much maligned William Buford, who just could not get a shot to go down — made a three-point dagger in crunch time.

This is the kind of game you expect to see in a balanced conference like the Big Ten, where road wins are like pearls of the highest price.  Wisconsin played its normal deliberate game and its in-your-face defense, but today, the Buckeyes were just a little bit better. Winning at the Kohl Center is a huge step forward for Ohio State, because winning in an intimidating atmosphere says a lot about your team’s mental toughness — and there are a lot of challenging games yet to be played.

The Challenge Of The Kohl Center

Tomorrow afternoon the Ohio State Buckeyes travel to the Kohl Center to play the Wisconsin Badgers.  They’re hoping to come away with their first win at Wisconsin under Coach Thad Matta.

The Buckeyes have enjoyed great success under Coach Matta — but not at the Kohl Center.  There, they are 0-6, and many of the losses have been of the last-minute, heart-breaking variety.  Last year, Wisconsin was the first team to beat the Buckeyes, winning a bruising battle behind the heroic efforts of stud point guard Jordan Taylor.  It also was a game marred by controversy.  Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger said one of the Wisconsin fans who rushed the floor spit on him; the Wisconsin faithful denied the charge and called Sullinger a crybaby.  During Saturday’s game, expect Wisconsin fans to razz Sullinger unmercifully — and perhaps wear a raincoat or two.

Why does Ohio State have such a tough time at the Kohl Center?  Is it, as some Buckeye fans contend, that the refs are just horribly biased in favor of the Badgers when they play at home?  Or, as I believe, is it because Wisconsin has tough, well-coached teams and a loud and proud group of basketball fans that just make playing the game in that place a grueling challenge for the visiting team?

In either case, this year’s rematch should be a great game.  Wisconsin struggled to score points at the start of the Big Ten season, but has righted the ship and reeled off six wins in a row.  Taylor is still around — it seems like he has played forever — and he is the main cog in the Wisconsin machine.  But the Badgers also have a hard-nosed inside-outside player in Jared Berggren and a slew of other versatile players who can shoot the three and crash the boards.  Under the tutelage of their great coach Bo Ryan, Wisconsin also plays a deliberate offensive game that means every possession counts.

At the Kohl Center, you know every game is going to be tough.  The Buckeyes are hoping that they can finally come away with a win tomorrow.

The Badgers And The Buckeyes

Wisconsin has a rare opportunity tomorrow.  A few months ago they ruined Ohio State’s perfect season in football with a convincing win at Camp Randall Stadium.  Tomorrow they have the chance to do the same thing in basketball.  The very idea sends a collective shudder through Buckeye Nation.

The odds favor the Badgers.  They have a well-coached, talented team — and Wisconsin is ridiculously hard to beat at the Kohl Center.  Bo Ryan’s record there is absurdly good.  Thad Matta, who has a fine Big Ten road record since he began coaching the Buckeyes, has never beaten Wisconsin at the Kohl Center.  And if, like me, you are a Buckeye fan who believes in karma, your heart must have sank when you saw Wisconsin recently pull out a gritty road win against Iowa in a game where Wisconsin simply could not knock down a shot.  That probably means that the Badgers will be lights out tomorrow.

Tomorrow’s game should be a real treat for college basketball fans.  Both teams play solid basketball and sound defense.  Both teams have experience and players who are in contention for all-conference honors.  In Jon Leuer and Jordan Taylor, Wisconsin has two players who would be welcome on any team in the country, and they are backed by a complement of players who can shoot the 3, crash the boards, and run Wisconsin’s deliberate offense to perfection.  Both teams have great coaches who are perennial winners.  If you are Ohio State, you are hoping that Jared Sullinger plays at the same high level he has displayed all season and that David Lighty and Jon Diebler, as seniors, help the Buckeyes navigate through the rough patches that undoubtedly will occur before the screaming Kohl Center crowd.

This will be a huge test for this year’s Ohio State basketball team.  Win or lose, it is the kind of tough game that will be good experience for the Buckeyes when the NCAA Tournament rolls around.