Thad Matta has not been in this situation before in his 13-year tenure at Ohio State. The Buckeyes currently sit at 0-3 in the Big Ten, 10-6 overall, and in danger of falling to 0-6 in conference play with its next three games against three of teams at the top of the conference standings.
However, that didn’t stop redshirt junior guard Kam Williams from entering Wednesday’s press conference laughing and joking with freshman forward Andre Wesson.
“There’s a lot of season left,” Williams said. “Just because we lost three games don’t mean I’m not going to have a smile on my face. We just got to keep playing.”
OSU lost one of its leaders on the court last week in junior forward Keita Bates-Diop, who underwent surgery on Tuesday for a stress fracture to his shin. At 6-foot-7 and having a wingspan of more than 7 feet, Bates-Diop was a primary influence on the glass and in post defense. On offense, he was one of the primary scoring options for the Buckeyes. He averaged 9.7 points per game this season.
OSU lost a narrow game to Purdue last week at home, 76-75. Then the Buckeyes went on the road to streaking Minnesota, losing by 10. Both Purdue and Minnesota are currently ranked in the top 25.
In its three conference games, OSU has allowed an average of 76.3 points per game, compared to 63 during nonconference play. OSU has relied on its defense for most of the season to get stops when the offense struggles to execute in the half court. In those three Big Ten matchups thus far, OSU has been able to do that, but that’s after the team finds itself in a double-digit hole. OSU was down 15 at Illinois, 10 to Purdue and 18 at Minnesota.
OSU coach Thad Matta said the biggest thing he’s after is seeing improvement from his players in the thinking component of the game. In a way to expedite that process, Matta estimated that he has had the team work on situational execution this year more than any of his years of coaching combined.
“We got to stop putting ourselves in these positions,” Matta said. “We got to find a way not to dig ourselves in that hole, if at all possible.”
The Wisconsin Badgers, led by seniors Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig, and sophomore Ethan Happ host the Buckeyes in the Kohl Center at 7 p.m. on Thursday. The Badgers were looked at as a possible Final Four team in the preseason. Since then, coach Greg Gard’s team has fluttered in a few games and looked dominant in others, including wins over Indiana and Syracuse. Wisconsin currently doesn’t own a win against a top-25 team.
The Badgers return all five of their starters from the 2015-16 season. Seniors Vitto Brown and Hayes are both from northwest Ohio. Wisconsin is ranked 11th in the KenPom rankings and 17th in adjusted defense with an estimated 92.8 points allowed per 100 possessions.
OSU ranks 85th in adjusted offense (points per 100 possessions).
Hayes was named the Big Ten’s Preseason Player of the Year, but he isn’t alone in dominating on both ends of the court. Koenig, at point guard, averages 14 points per game, while Happ, last year’s Big Ten Freshman of the Year, puts up 13.4 points and 9.1 rebounds per contest.
“They got inside, outside — just a solid basketball team, just in terms of, if you make a mistake, they will make you pay with a 3,” Matta said. “Then defensively, you gotta make shots up there.”
Williams is OSU’s best 3-point threat on a team that ranks 244th in the country at shooting the ball from deep. He struggled against Minnesota, shooting 1 for 10 from the field. Matta said that he is not as worried as the fan base because of the tough stretch to start the conference slate. But make no mistake about it, it’s time to go for OSU.
“We know once we get locked in, and once we get engaged and start doing things with force and aggression and have that attack mentality, we’re pretty tough to stop,” Williams said. “We just got to find a way to keep that going for a full game.”