The leading candidate for NCAA basketball’s player of the year award calmly drained two foul shots with under a minute to go. With four seconds left, he also drained an extremely tough three-pointer from the corner. All in a day’s work for Jared Sullinger, right? Not quite. See, Sullinger's foul shots were the first points he scored since making a layup with 13:16 to play in the second half. At that point Ohio State had a 47-32 lead over Wisconsin and it looked like the Buckeyes were on their way to keeping their clean sheet. Then Jordan Taylor happened.
From the time Sullinger made that layup, Taylor went on to score 21 points. Taylor isn’t recognized as the best player on his own team, let alone the best point guard in the Big Ten. He showed on Saturday, however, that he’s the most indispensable player. The Badgers don’t have a guard with creativity other than Taylor, so it may be an issue if he ever gets in foul trouble. But we can save that for another time. Taylor showed some major onions by nailing a layup and two three pointers immediately when Wisconsin encountered its largest deficit of the game.
But this game isn’t about Wisconsin's come-from-behind 71-67 victory or their now 134-11 record under Bo Ryan at the Kohl Center. This game was about the #1 team in the country blowing their undefeated record despite holding a 15-point lead in the second half. So let’s take a look at how it happened. The problem with having a big man as your best player is that he can’t get himself the ball. He’s at the mercy of his guards providing entry passes or grabbing offensive rebounds to score. Sullinger missed two shots as the Buckeyes blew the 15-point lead, but if he’s the best player in the country, doesn’t he deserve more opportunities from his teammates?
Turnovers and missed jump shots plagued Ohio State in the last 13 minutes. Buckeye fans' biggest fear came true as the team truly needed leadership from the point-guard position. It looked like Aaron Craft was going to raise his game at one stretch in the second half, but the moment became too big for him to handle. The rest of the team rushed shots and stayed away from the offensive game-plan that had gotten them the lead. Ohio State is the 11 best team in the country in three-point efficiency, but they only went 3 for 9 in this game. That’s sad given the Kohl Center’s soft rims.
I also fault Thad Matta, a coach who’s never been known for his Xs and Os. Recruiting has always carried Motta’s teams, in a similar way as Bill Self at Illinois and Kansas or Roy Williams at Kansas and North Carolina. Motta severely narrowed his rotation in this game, playing five players 34 or more minutes and using Dallas Lauderdale and Deshaun Thomas for only six minutes each. When his team was struggling to score, Motta didn’t turn to Thomas, someone who’s shown all year that he can heat things up at any second.
Realistically, anyone who thought Ohio State was going to finish the season undefeated didn’t realize what the odds were. According to Kenpom.com, the Buckeyes only had a 15.6% to finish the regular season undefeated and then they’d have to get through the conference tournament and March Madness. They’re still the #1 team in the country, but now they lose their air of invincibility. Things won’t be easy for them in Purdue next Sunday, but we’ll all be watching to see how they bounce back against Michigan State on Tuesday.
Ohio State looked like the best team in the country through 27 minutes. The last 13 showed there’s still a long road left. The last four teams that stayed undefeated longer than any other team didn’t win the National Championship. As of now, this season seems wide open enough for the trend to continue.