Buckeyes Looking For Rare Win At Wisconsin

Wisconsin has been one of the dominant teams in the Big Ten over the last five years, but this season the Badgers are unranked at 17-7. However, they are tough to beat at home. Ohio State will head to the Kohl Center on Wednesday to look for a rare victory in Madison. Point guard Jamar Butler is the reigning Big Ten Player of the Week for the No. 12 Buckeyes.

Following two key wins last week, Ohio State vaulted to No. 12 in both national polls – the highest ranking of any Big Ten team.

But there is no time to smell the roses. The Buckeyes (18-3, 7-3 Big Ten) will head to Wisconsin's Kohl Center on Wednesday (8 p.m., ESPN Plus) to take on the unranked Badgers (17-7, 7-4).

Although this is somewhat of a down year for the Badgers – at least for their recent standards – OSU head coach Thad Matta knows it will be difficult to win on Wisconsin's home court. The Buckeyes defeated the Badgers, 77-67, on Jan. 18 in Columbus, but Wisconsin is 12-2 at home this season.

"I think you go in with the mindset – quite honestly – that we have to upset Wisconsin," Matta said. "We don't have a guy on this team that has ever won there. I think there's only been one Big Ten team that has ever won there, and that's Illinois twice. We know full well that it's a tremendous challenge for us. You know how well they play at home, you know they've won two in a row in a major way.

"Our guys have an appreciation for Wisconsin and they job they've done. Go back to even last year, they beat us three times. We've gotten them once this year and the focus has to be on us and what we have to do to win the game."

Forward Alando Tucker (6-5, Jr.) is the go-to player for Wisconsin. He is averaging 18.9 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. He almost single-handedly kept the Badgers in the earlier game against OSU with 21 points and nine rebounds. Tucker is undersized for a post player, but he more than makes up for it with tremendous quickness and a soft touch around the basket.

"When you have a team built around a guy like Tucker that's a great start for you," Matta said. "There's no question that they're playing great basketball right now."

Guard Kammron Taylor (6-2, Jr.) is also enjoying a fine season for UW and averages 15.5 points per game.

Center Brian Butch (6-11, So.) sprained an ankle in the loss to OSU, but has recovered nicely. He scored a season-high 23 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in Wisconsin's 82-62 win at Penn State last Saturday. For the season, Butch is averaging 10.3 points and 6.0 rebounds.

When asked what makes it so difficult to win at the Kohl Center, Matta said: "Well, number one, they've got great players and they're very well coached. And number two I think is just the environment. It's an event up there, it's a great place to play and they have great support. So, I think once again, it will be another hostile environment for us.

"We need to be sound defensively, and we need to shoot free throws a lot better than we did last time (when OSU was 14 of 25 against UW). I think you get an appreciation for our defense and how you have to defend their offense."

Teams might be gunning for the Buckeyes now more than ever since they own the top ranking in the Big Ten. But Matta doesn't put too much stock in things of that nature.

"I think everybody in the league feels that they have a target on them, because of the parity of the league," he said. "It's every game. There's not a game on our schedule where I say, ‘If we play halfway decent we're going to win that game.' Really, it illustrates the point that we need to get better."

Ohio State point guard Jamar Butler (6-2, So.) is the reigning Big Ten Player of the Week for his 20 and 22-point performances in the wins over Michigan and Illinois, respectively. For the season, Butler is averaging 9.8 points, 4.8 assists and 3.3 rebounds. He is shooting 49 percent from 3-point range and is second in the Big Ten in assist-to-turnover ratio (+3.17). Oh yeah, and he's a lockdown defender as well. Simply put, Butler is one of the most improved players in the country.

"Well, I've said it a million times: He's one of the toughest players I've ever coached," Matta said. "He doesn't say a lot. But he's always tuned in to what's going on, what needs to be done, where it needs to be done, when it needs to be done. And that's what you want out of your point guard is to know he has that calming effect about him that he's hard to rattle."

Butler was a prolific scorer in high school at Lima Shawnee. As a senior, he averaged 31.6 points and won Ohio's Mr. Basketball award. He wasn't known as a good defender until he arrived at OSU.

"He came from an offensive mindset and I think last year he figured out quickly that he was going to have to defend," Matta said. "I think he looked at himself and said, ‘This is one of my strengths.' His quickness and his strength and his toughness has made him a very good defender since he's been here."

One might think that Butler's shooting percentage from 3-point range would be tops on the team by a long shot. But not when Je'Kel Foster is on the roster. The 6-3 senior guard leads the nation in 3-point shooting percentage at 52.9 (64-121).

"I think the way he has shot the ball has been obviously very impressive and has obviously helped our team," Matta said of Foster.

Overall, Foster is averaging a team-best 14.9 points per game, 4.5 rebounds and 3.0 assists. The gritty defender also leads the Big Ten with 52 steals.

Senior center Terence Dials is coming off a 19-point, 16-rebound performance against Illinois. The rebounds were a new career high for the 6-9 Dials. He is now averaging 14.1 points and 7.5 rebounds per game.

The Buckeyes are known for their 3-point gunners, but Matta insists that the Buckeyes aren't forgetting about the big man inside.

"We don't have a play in our system that's not designed to get a two-foot shot," he said. "I think that keeping him active and getting him the ball is very important for us."

Another key player for OSU is sixth man Ron Lewis. The 6-4 junior is averaging 12.0 points and could be on the verge of stealing more minutes from senior Matt Sylvester (8 ppg).

As well as the Buckeyes are playing offensively, Matta wants to see them ratchet up the intensity on defense. He thinks limiting Wisconsin's good looks is a big key to victory on Wednesday.

"I think the biggest challenge for us – and this is what I was most pleased about the Illinois game – is that we defended," Matta said. "We're going to have nights when we don't shoot the ball particularly well and we've got to continue to defend. I think that's the biggest challenge for this team and that's why I've been harping on the defense as much as I have because I know late in the game when push comes to shove, you have to get stops."

The coach also gave an update on junior guard Sylvester Mayes, who has missed two straight games with a reported ankle injury.

"He's back, as of yesterday," Matta said. "He probably could have gone Sunday, but I don't know if he would have been 100 percent."

There have been rumblings that Mayes is not happy with his role on the team.

"I talked to him last week and there are just some things he has got to do better to elevate his minutes," Matta said. "He does a great job of pressuring the basketball and he has some explosion with the ball. It just comes down to making better decisions."

The Players' View

Butler seems to enjoy playing on the road in hostile environments. As Matta mentioned, he doesn't get rattled easy and actually seems to play better when the pressure is turned up.

Butler is still one of the youngest players on the team, but he knows full well that it is difficult to win at Wisconsin.

"It is a tough place to play and they have a good homecourt advantage there," Butler said. "They like to slow the game down and get the ball inside. They play very hard. We're a team that likes to get out and run. We want to play our game."

Butler has been playing as well as anyone in the conference this month and he is hoping he can stay hot.

"I feel really good right now and my confidence level is high," he said. "I'm shooting the ball as well as I've been shooting it all year."

As for containing Taylor – the Chris Rock look-alike – Butler knows it will be another tough challenge.

"He is a scoring-minded point guard," Butler said. "If he gets it going, he's hard to slow down. We need to keep him from getting going."

* Ohio State forward J.J. Sullinger isn't putting up huge stats this year, but he continues to do things that don't show up in the stat book, such as diving for loose balls and playing tough defense. Overall, the 6-5 Sullinger is averaging 9.8 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. The athletic Sullinger is not forcing shots this year. He is shooting 51 percent from the floor, and 48 percent from 3-point range.

"We expect a tough game," he said of the trip to Wisconsin. "It's a must-win for them and a must-win for us. … They are a good team and they are playing well at home. They protect their home floor. They know how important it is to win at home. We have to match their intensity. They are good on defense and sound on offense. They give you their best night every night."

The Buckeyes are in a good position. They know if they win out, they can do no worse than a share of the Big Ten championship.

"In the past, we've been in the type of situation where we needed other people to do things for us," Sullinger said. "Now we know if we take care of our business we can be where we want to be."

Sullinger could be matched up against the talented Tucker when he's in the game.

"Alando Tucker is a great player," Sullinger said. "We know we're not going to pitch a shutout against a player like that. We want to make it hard for him to score and make sure there are no easy baskets. We want to take away what he likes to do and take him out of his comfort zone. We want him to have to shoot more shots than he has points. We did that here and, obviously, we won that game."


* The Buckeyes find themselves leading the Big Ten Conference in several areas heading into the week. Ohio State is No. 1 in scoring offense (78.9 ppg.), scoring margin (13.7), field goal percentage (580-1,178/.492), 3-point field goal pct. (199-465/.428), 3-point, field goals made (9.5 pg.) and assist-to-turnover ratio (+1.26).

* Foster set an OSU record with 12-consecutive made 3-pointers in wins vs. Minnesota Feb. 4 and at Michigan Feb. 9. Foster missed his first attempt from long range vs. Minnesota and then hit seven-consecutive treys on his way to 25 points. He then made his first five 3-pointers at Michigan before a miss in his final attempt in Ann Arbor. He started 5 of 5 from beyond the arc versus Illinois Sunday and finished 6 of 8 (.750). Foster has made 21 of 27 in the last four games from 3-point range (.778). He is 27 of 39 overall from the field (.692) during that stretch.

* The current No. 12 ranking is the highest for an Ohio State team since it entered the 2000 NCAA Tournament as the No. 8-ranked team.

* Ohio State owns a 20-game advantage in the all-time series with Wisconsin with an 81-61 edge since the first meeting in 1905. Ohio State is 51-20 in games played at Ohio State while Wisconsin is 40-29 in Madison. When Ohio State carries an Associated Press ranking into the matchup, the Buckeyes are 19-7. When Wisconsin is ranked, Ohio State is 6-7 against the Badgers. The teams have met just three times when both teams are ranked among the Top 25. Ohio State has each of those contests.

* Matta is closing in on yet another 20-win season. The second year Ohio State coach came to the Buckeyes with a streak of four 20+ win seasons at Butler (24 wins in 2001) and Xavier (26 in all three years from 2002-04). With 20 victories a year ago at Ohio State, Matta is one of two coaches nationally to record 20 or more wins in the first five seasons of his coaching career. Mark Few of Gonzaga is the other with 20+ in all six years with the Bulldogs.

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