It was three weeks ago that the Badgers hosted the Buckeyes and handed the nation's only remaining unbeaten team its first blemish of the season with a 71-67 victory. While that in itself might be motivation enough to fully bring out the ire of Buckeye fans, the aftermath of the game helped further fan the flames.
As Wisconsin's fans stormed the court in celebration, the Buckeyes' trip back to their locker room was not without incident. After leaving the Kohl Center, OSU freshman forward Jared Sullinger took to his personal Twitter page to deliver a message.
"To be spit on is just nasty," he wrote. "On top of that in my Face. Before and after the game."
Said OSU head coach Thad Matta: "What are you going to do? Those things happen. It was a crazy, crazy environment, which was great for college basketball. You don't want stuff like that to happen but you can't do anything about it."
Once his comments began to circulate, Wisconsin officials said they would look into the situation. Asked about it Feb. 14, Badgers head coach Bo Ryan said they have cameras that record everything that goes on inside the arena and had found no evidence of any fans spitting on Sullinger.
Then, he issued a statement that will be waved at him all Sunday evening.
"All is know is, we won the game," he said on the Big Ten teleconference. "Deal with it."
The OSU student section – nicknamed "The Nuthouse" – will make sure the coach does not forget those words. The group will put its seats in the lower bowl of Value City Arena to good use with 1,400 specialty towels donated by local clothing line Homage emblazoned with those final three words from Ryan.
Monday, the coach attempted to clarify what he meant in the aftermath of the last OSU-Wisconsin game.
"Any time I make a statement like ‘deal with it,' it's always about going to (what's) next," he said. "It has nothing to do with anything in particular. The game was played, it's over, and then you deal with it. You deal with the fact that the buzzer sounded, the game is over. That's all that was, so don't try to make anything out of that.
"That's just people that have nothing else to do. We just play. I'm a coach. I coach, we play."
Asked if he was aware that the student section would be situated directly behind his team – a development new for this season – Ryan said it did not bother him.
"I know nothing about that," he said. "I have no clue what you're talking about. I don't even know where anybody sits in the game. I don't even know where our people sit."
For his part, Matta has tried to downplay the situation. In addition to insisting that the Buckeyes do not have a chief rival in basketball, he has gone to great lengths to paint Sunday's game as simply the next one on the schedule.
Asked if Ryan's comments might add to the situation, Matta said, "Maybe it will but I don't know. I'm not sure. I know this, for our guys, we've got a tremendous challenge ahead of us and they won't be thinking about anything along those lines."
An outright Big Ten title could be on the line. The Buckeyes entered the weekend with a one-game lead on runner-up Purdue, which plays today at Iowa. A Boilermakers loss would give OSU the title regardless of what transpires against the Badgers, but an Iowa loss means the Buckeyes need to win in order to not have to share the title.
Matta admitted to feeling that what transpires Sunday inside the VCA might be unlike anything that has come before for a multitude of reasons – not the least of which is the fact that the program will honor seniors David Lighty, Jon Diebler and Dallas Lauderdale before things tip off.
"If you look back to the previous six years that we've had here on the last home game, we've had some tremendous basketball played in here," he said. "As I told our players after the Penn State game (Tuesday night), I think going home on Sunday will maybe be the greatest environment they've played in."
And if the OSU students find themselves on the court celebrating a victory after the final buzzer sounds, Matta said that would be just fine.
"I just know this: anytime you're in the process of building a program and you can have the excitement, I'm all about that," he said. "We've set out here to try to build a great program and hopefully we've headed in the right direction and whatever happens, happens."