One point determined the Big Ten’s regular season champion. One game could decide whether it’s Ohio State or Wisconsin that is awarded an NCAA tournament top seed.
The top-ranked Buckeyes and third-ranked Badgers face off in the conference tournament title game Sunday in Chicago, with the winner nearly certain to receive one of four No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tourney.
The teams’ previous two meetings this season were decided by a combined four points, with each team winning at home. Wisconsin beat the Buckeyes 72-69 in Madison on Oct. 9, but Ohio State hasn’t lost since.
Ohio State - at the time ranked second in the nation - beat then-No. 1 Wisconsin 49-48 on Feb. 25 to capture the regular season Big Ten title.
“I’ve got to think we’re in pretty decent shape,” said Ohio State coach Thad Matta, whose team has won 16 straight games since the loss at Wisconsin. “We’re 29-3, a school record for wins. I think we’ve done everything we need to do to put ourselves in that position.”
The Buckeyes put themselves in position to win their first Big Ten tournament title in five years with a 63-52 victory over Purdue in Saturday’s semifinals. Freshman center Greg Oden had a tournament-record 19 rebounds to go with 17 points and four blocks.
“It’s that time of year,” said Buckeyes freshman guard Mike Conley Jr., who was also Oden’s teammate in high school. “You win or go home. Greg is the kind of player who steps up to the occasion. He knows we’re in tournament time right now and every game is critical.
“He’s really stepping up his play both offensively and defensively and starting to do a little more of everything each game. He’s really leading us right now.”
Wisconsin (29-4) has done a good job of limiting Oden’s effectiveness, holding him to a combined 21 points and 12 rebounds in the two meetings. However, this time the 7-foot center has the advantage of not facing the Badgers’ 6-foot-11 Brian Butch, who injured his wrist in the last meeting with the Buckeyes and is likely done for the season.
While Ohio State looks to its star freshman for leadership, the Badgers are relying on fifth-year senior and conference player of the year Alando Tucker to lead them to their first Big Ten title since 2004. Although his team could be on the verge of locking up one of the top seeds in the NCAA tournament, Tucker is downplaying the importance of that fact.
“We’re not really saying that we want a No. 1 seed right now,” he said. “A lot of teams get hurt doing that. Our focus is to win this game (Sunday), and everything else will play itself out once we take care of business.”
Tucker, whose 20.2 points per game lead the Badgers, scored 21 points Saturday to lead his team to a 53-41 semifinal win over Illinois. In the process, he increased his career total to 2,167 points and passed Michael Finley as Wisconsin’s all-time scoring leader.
“That’s a great feat,” said Tucker, who has scored at least 20 points in each of the last three games and 19 times overall this season. “A great accomplishment. It’s one of those things. The team’s been so successful this year. It’s helped me out confidence-wise, the way everyone has been playing. It’s one of those things where it happened unselfishly.”