In a league that includes two of the top three teams in the Associated Press poll (No. 1 Michigan, No. 3 Indiana), four of the top 13 (Ohio State at No. 11, Michigan State at No. 13) and five of the top 25 (No. 23 Minnesota), there aren’t a lot of easy touches.
“Coach (Thad) Matta talked about it with us a couple of weeks ago that when you look at our schedule there are really no games where you can say, ‘OK, mark it down as a win,’” sophomore wing Sam Thompson said. “We’ve got to bring our best every game.”
That’s definitely the case tonight when the Buckeyes (15-4, 5-2 Big Ten) host Wisconsin (14-6, 5-2) in a series that has been transformed into a heated rivalry in recent years.
Matta knows the meetings between the Badgers and Buckeyes have taken on their own special luster.
“It seems like all the games that we’ve played so far have had major implications, for one reason or another, probably dating back to ’07 when it was 1 vs. 2 in here,” he said, referring to Ohio State’s 66-49 win that helped propel it to a conference title and a visit to the Final Four. “Then they knocked us off when we were undefeated a couple of years ago.”
Bad blood has risen to the top during the most recent meetings of what was once just another date on the schedule.
The Buckeyes were 24-0 in February 2011 when Jordan Taylor scored 21 of his 27 points in the second half to help the Badgers climb out of a 15-point hole to upend Ohio State, the nation’s last unbeaten team, 71-67.
After that game, Buckeyes center Jared Sullinger said a fan spit on him as he was leaving the court at Kohl Center. Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan was later asked about the alleged incident and famously said: “All I know is, we won the game. Deal with it.”
When the teams met in Columbus later that season, Ohio State’s students were all over Ryan, waving scarlet towels that read “Deal With It” as the Buckeyes pulled off a 93-65 victory. They set an NCAA Division I record by making 14 of 15 3-pointers, led by Jon Diebler who hit 7 of 8 behind the arc while scoring 27 points.
When Wisconsin came to Ohio State last February in the most recent meeting, Jared Berggren scored the 16th-ranked Badgers’ final five points, including a go-ahead 3-pointer with 31 seconds left to beat the No. 8 Buckeyes 63-60.
As might be expected, that created some hurt feelings.
“That that was our senior night last year and they beat us in Will’s last game,” sophomore guard Shannon Scott said of the going-away gift presented to the Buckeyes’ only senior last season, William Buford. “So we kind of want to play this (game) for him. We didn’t want to send him off with a loss. We didn’t appreciate doing that.”
Both teams have had their share of highs and lows so far this season in the Big Ten.
The Badgers ended a brief two-game skid with a tense 45-44 win on Traevon Jackson’s 15-foot jumper from the right side with four seconds left at home to beat No. 12 Minnesota on Saturday.
To add even more fuel to the fire, Jackson is the son of a legendary Ohio State player, Jimmy Jackson, a two-time All-American and twice the Big Ten player of the year. The younger Jackson will take the floor at an arena where his father’s retired jersey No. 22 hangs from the rafters.
The Buckeyes have won four of their last five, including a 65-51 victory at Penn State on Saturday — their second win in a row. But they’ve watched big leads evaporate in the second half of both of those wins.
Tied for fourth coming into the week, a game back of Big Ten co-leaders Indiana and Michigan, both teams know they can’t afford any more slips.
Asked if there was anything that had surprised him so far in the conference, Matta said to check back in a month.