Wisconsin (10-3, 1-1) has not lost a Big Ten home game in head coach Bo Ryan's four years at the school. The Badgers are currently riding a 36-game winning streak at the Kohl Center.
However, Ohio State (12-3, 1-1) is not focused on stopping the streak.
"Honestly, we haven't even mentioned that to them," OSU head coach Thad Matta said. "I'm more concerned about our mental approach going in. We're playing, what I think, is a very good basketball team. It's going to take us clicking and playing our best basketball to have a chance to win, and I don't want to frighten them too much by letting them know they haven't lost in 36 games. But no, the focus right now is mainly on Ohio State."
Wisconsin is coming off a 74-61 loss at Indiana Saturday. The Hoosiers were playing terrible basketball prior to that game, but came to play against the Badgers.
"First and foremost, I think it tells you how good Indiana is," Matta said. "When they're playing their best basketball, they are probably one of the most talented teams in this league. Taking from that game, one team I've got a tremendous amount of respect for is Maryland. I think Maryland is a great basketball team and they went in there (to Madison) and Wisconsin beat them (69-64).
"With Wisconsin, you've got great experience, you've got very skilled players one through 10 that they can put on the floor. Everybody can shoot the ball, everybody can pass, they can dribble and they have the capabilities to really stretch your defense out."
The Badgers are led by 6-5 junior forward Alando Tucker, who averages 16 points and 6.4 rebounds per game.
Other starters include: 6-8 senior forward Mike Wilkinson (12.2 ppg, 6.7 rpg), 6-8 senior forward Zach Morley (8.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg), 6-1 senior guard Sharif Chambliss (8.7 ppg, 3.1 assists per game) and 6-5 senior guard Clayton Hanson (6.4 ppg).
The top player off the bench is 6-2 sophomore guard Kammron Taylor (7.0 ppg).
The Badgers are deep, but they are clearly missing 2003-04 Big Ten Player of the Year Devin Harris. He left school a year early and was the No. 5 overall pick of the NBA Draft, going to the Washington Wizards (who later traded him to the Dallas Mavericks). Harris ran the show for Wisconsin the last three years at the point, but he was also a great scorer and defender. He is simply one of those players that cannot be replaced and the Badgers are not nearly the same team without him.
Ohio State's marquee player is 6-9 junior center Terence Dials. He led the Bucks to an 81-69 win over Iowa Saturday with 22 points and eight rebounds. Overall, Dials leads the team in both categories, averaging 16.1 points and 8.3 boards per game.
"Terence continues to play well for us and consistency is the key with him," Matta said. "He really established himself in the second half of the Iowa game and that's what we need from him."
Matta was also asked to comment on 6-7 junior forward Matt Sylvester, who is averaging 5.5 points off the bench.
"Yeah, I think with Matt on this team, he's really accepted taking the first six minutes of the game, getting a good feel for what's going on, and he's came in and really done a nice job for us," Matta said. "He's a little bit different than who he replaces in Ivan (Harris), you know, maybe passes the ball a little bit better and flows the offense.
"But, I think the big thing with Matt, going into the Iowa game, was the defense that he played. We're constantly on him that he's got to be a good defender for us, as well as rebounding, and I think him accepting that role and saying, ‘Hey, this is what I need to do to help this team,' I couldn't be happier with what he's done for us."
Since being informed that the team was being placed on probation and would be ineligible for the NCAA Tournament, Ohio State has gone 7-1. The team is obviously playing good basketball and the players are not feeling sorry for themselves.
"Well, I think honestly, since day one that we got here, we've talked about my biggest goal for this team is to get each guy to do the best that he can do," Matta said. "I've always said this: I've never thought or talked about March until March with the team. Our focus is on, ‘Hey, today when we take the practice floor, let's just get a little bit better.' We want each guy to raise his level of play just a little bit and hopefully continue to build what we have to do to become the best team we can."
When the decision was handed down, there was some initial depression, but the team quickly got over it, according to Matta.
"Yeah, I could ask any of you, ‘I heard about your problem,' and you would say, ‘Gosh, how'd you know?' We've all got problems, but the successful teams, or the successful people in life – I think – are the people that assess the situation and say, ‘OK, here is what I can do to help matters.' And I've been pleased with our guys' mindsets because we know we can't change what happened to us, but the thing we can do is continue to focus in on this team and get a little bit better."
Ohio State's players seem to like Matta's style. He stresses defense, but he also allows them to "run and shoot" offensively.
"I hope so," he said. "I try and coach this team as if I were a player. There's times to enjoy the moment, and there's other times when we have to buckle down and learn from it. I think getting our players to have that understanding of how we play our system, I hope it is a, quote unquote, fun style for them.
"We're embarking on a tough week and my focus is not so much to beat Wisconsin, but for this team to get a little bit better. Because I know if we don't go up and play well, we don't have a chance to win either game this week (OSU also travels to LSU Saturday)."
* One of the most underrated players on the team is senior point guard Brandon Fuss-Cheatham. He's not putting up big statistics (6.7 ppg, 3.1 apg) but he's running the offense, playing good defense and is a one-man press breaker most of the time.
Fuss-Cheatham is glad to be in the midst of the Big Ten season with every game feeling like a postseason tilt.
"For us, every game is big," Fuss-Cheatham said. "Since we don't have a postseason, you've got to come in every day and fight for that next game. We still have a prize to fight for (the Big Ten championship) and we're not out of the Big Ten Tournament. We can win the Big Ten regular season and the tournament, so we definitely have a lot to fight for."
It would have been understandable if players like Fuss-Cheatham, Tony Stockman and Matt Marinchick lost a little bit of their desire to play after they were told OSU was being placed on probation. However, the opposite has happened. They seem to be playing with more heart and intensity than ever.
"I think it has a lot to do with our coaches," Fuss-Cheatham said. "When they came in here and told us what was going to happen, they said, ‘That doesn't mean that we can let down.' So, everyday we come into practice, we watch film, we make sure that we are prepared for the next team like we would if it were any other season. So, I think guys are really focused. We've had a good start, which we haven't had a good start like this for two years. So, I think guys are really excited and want to challenge themselves that we make sure we follow through with it."
Fuss and his teammates went through some tough times the last two years. But they are winning this year and feeling good.
"Yeah, it feels good to win, that's all there is to that," Fuss-Cheatham said. "When you win, you want to come in that next day and you want to get that next one. So, when you come into practice, you want to be prepared. Our coaches make it fun. So, when we come into practice, they always have a challenge for us. In practice, guys are fighting for time and stuff. So, they will make challenges. Four-on-four, whoever wins, the other team has to run and stuff like that. Guys get on each other and have fun out there. So, for us, when we have practice, it's kind of like a game for us. So, guys are just excited about winning right now and we've got to keep that going."
Just about every arena in the Big Ten has a tremendous home court advantage. But what makes it so difficult to win at Wisconsin?
"It's really hard to pinpoint," Fuss-Cheatham said. "When you walk in there, it looks a lot like the Schott, but the band is right behind you, so it's hard to hear. I think it's their mindset at home. When they go in there, guys know that coming in it's going to be a tough game. They've established that. So, it might be a little bit of a fear factor.
"But, for us to win, it's going to take a total team effort. Everyone has to do their part, offensively and defensively, and make sure that we stay together when things are going bad, and make sure when things are going good that we keep it going."
It would be a nice accomplishment for the Buckeyes to be the team that ends Wisconsin's home winning streak.
"That would be great," Fuss-Cheatham said. "That is another challenge for us. Since we don't have the postseason – since that prize is taken away – we've got to fight for other things, like taking away winning streaks. Or, making sure a team doesn't make the (NCAA) tournament because they lost to us. That's always something to fight for, especially this year."