Ohio State played Wisconsin twice a year ago. When the collective events of both the games are added up, the sum of those occurrences seems to equal what has recently become the newest rivalry in Big Ten basketball.
If what took place a year ago wasn’t enough to develop at least a mutual disdain for one another, those events most certainly will serve as quite the reminder for why this year’s first meeting between the two teams is shaping out to be an instrumental battle in the conference race.
The No. 19 Badgers will host the third-ranked Buckeyes at 2 p.m. on Saturday afternoon. Here’s a quick review for those looking for reasons the bout is shaping up to be one of the biggest games of the weekend:
• For the second time in as many weeks, Ohio State’s is fighting for its positioning atop the Big Ten standings. A loss would move the Buckeyes – which currently holds a half-game advantage over the Badgers, Michigan and Michigan State – out of the top spot in the conference race.
• Ohio State head coach Thad Matta is 0-6 in his eight years with the Buckeyes at the Kohl Center. A year ago in Madison the Badgers ended the Buckeyes’ streak of 24-consecutive wins to start the season.
• After Wisconsin’s win on its home floor a year ago – which happened after the Badgers stormed back from a 15-point second half deficit – the fans stormed the court. Jared Sullinger said while the fans celebrated Wisconsin’s victory on the floor one of the fans spit on his face.
• When Sullinger made the allegation public on his Twitter account, Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan responded by saying there were surveillance cameras in the arena that would have picked up the incident. Ryan ended his press conference by saying, “deal with it” - a slogan printed on towels and chanted in the Badgers’ 93-65 loss in their visit to Value City Arena.
Still, Matta won't single out a win against the Badgers as being more special than victories against other Big Ten foes.
“I don’t drive to work in morning saying, ‘This is the biggest game of the year. We have to do this,’” Matta said. “It’s more like, ‘Hey, we’re playing a great basketball team, a top-20 team.'"
Not one for getting caught up in the off-the-court storylines that serve as hype for the battle, Matta instead is more concerned with keeping his Buckeyes (19-3, 7-2) current four-game winning streak alive.
The Badgers (18-5, 7-3), which have won each of their last six games, are hoping to overcome a three-game Big Ten losing streak suffered in early January to gain the top spot in the conference standings.
With plenty of implications for this year’s conference race on the line Saturday, the memory of losing at Wisconsin 71-67 after point guard Jordan Taylor’s 27-point outburst last February remains fresh in the Buckeyes’ minds.
“It was the first time I’ve ever had a court stormed on me,” sophomore point guard Aaron Craft said Friday. “You look up and it’s almost like ‘deer in the headlights’— what’s going on? You’re shaking hands and then you’re just trying to find the way to the locker room and figure out what to do next.”
For Sullinger, this game is personal. Not only is it his first visit back to Madison since the alleged incident a year ago, but the Buckeyes have blown out all four of their opponents since the All-America big man took responsibility for the team's last loss at Illinois on Jan. 10.
If Sullinger is brewing up a payback plan for the Badgers, his teammates don't know what he has up his sleeve.
“He really doesn’t discuss it,” sophomore forward Deshaun Thomas said of Sullinger’s experience in his first trip to the Kohl Center. “He just goes on to the next game. He’s a guy who’s focused right now.”
Despite Ohio State’s lack of success under Matta in Madison, the head coach didn’t feel as if the building was the reason the Buckeyes have stumbled there. Matta acknowledges the task of winning at Wisconsin is a tough one, but he has his team thinking about other things than the intimidating crowd.
“My biggest thing is do they know why we haven’t won there?” Matta said. “There’s a lot of reasons. And they’ve had really good teams up there.”
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