The No. 5 Spartans head into a road contest with No. 16 Wisconsin tonight at 9-0 in conference play and will face arguably their first true Big Ten test this season. Of their nine conference wins to this point, only two of them have come against teams with winning marks in conference play – and both of those came at home in the form of wins against Wisconsin and Illinois.
The Spartans hold a three-game lead on four Big Ten teams sitting with 6-3 records: Wisconsin, Illinois, Purdue and Ohio State. Aside from MSU, the hottest team in the conference right now is OSU, which has won its last five Big Ten games.
Although the Badgers, Fighting Illini and Boilermakers could have some say in the matter, the Buckeyes might be sitting in the best position to catch the streaking Spartans. After opening with four of their first five games on the road, the Buckeyes have a relatively light schedule sitting in front of them.
OSU hosts bottom-dweller Penn State tomorrow night and 10th-place Iowa on Sunday, then hits the road to face Indiana, a team that is a half-game out of 9th place because Northwestern has played one more conference game.
In other words, the Buckeyes could easily be 9-3 and winners of eight straight in the Big Ten when they hit the road Feb. 14 to face Illinois. Junior center Dallas Lauderdale said he is not worried about the team becoming complacent while facing lower-ranked competition.
"How we keep our minds right is we want to win," he said. "We don't want to stop the losing streak. That's how I keep my mind focused."
The Buckeyes will need some help in order to catch MSU. After playing the Badgers on the road (MSU won the teams' first meeting this year 54-47) tonight, the Spartans will play at Illinois and home against Purdue. On Monday, MSU head coach Tom Izzo characterized the team's upcoming schedule as one of the toughest in his coaching career.
A slip-up – or two – would mean that the Buckeyes could have a shot at the title if they take care of their end of the situation. Doing so means remaining focused on the day-to-day, something Matta constantly preaches to his charges.
"For us it's just taking it one game at a time and worrying about us," junior forward David Lighty said. "We can't control what Michigan State does, so why worry about it? We hope they lose so we can hopefully win a Big Ten championship but we just control what we do in practice and games and try to get better every day."
The Big Ten might be decided Feb. 21 when OSU and MSU face off for their lone meeting of the season. Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, it will come in East Lansing – where they have not won since the 2006-07 season.
David Lighty characterized it as just another game.
"They're a real good team but I think we've played a lot of good teams this season" he said. "We've been on the road and played a lot of good teams. We won some and we lost some."
The opportunity to win a Big Ten title is something both players said has been a motivating factor for them throughout the season. Junior guard Evan Turner has often said he does not want to remembered for not winning any titles while in Columbus, and Lighty said he relayed that message to the Buckeyes before the 2009-10 season tipped off.
"That's what we talked about at the beginning of the season," Lighty said. "That's what we want to do. There's not too many of us on the team with a ring."
Indeed, Lighty is the only scholarship Buckeye who was on the active roster when the team captured its last conference crown three seasons ago. Walk-ons Danny Peters and Mark Titus were on the team while transfer Kyle Madsen sat out the year to satisfy NCAA rules.
That year's team featured plenty of firepower with the likes of Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr. and Daequan Cook on the roster. One year earlier, a senior-laden team led by Big Ten player of the year Terence Dials and classmates Je'Kel Foster, Matt Sylvester and J.J. Sullinger accomplished the same feat.
OSU head coach Thad Matta characterized that year's team as tough. Asked to compare it to this year's team, the coach said they are put together differently.
"I think this team is probably more efficient than that team was offensively," the coach said. "The actions we're running now, we didn't run with that team. There's a little bit of a difference there."
As Lauderdale put it, hopefully enough of a difference to push the team toward a goal that seemed impossible nearly a month ago.
"A Big Ten title is No. 1 because it's the first goal that's achievable," the big man said. "After that is a Big Ten (tournament) championship and then March Madness. The Big Ten title is the first obtainable goal and then move on from there."