By Adam Hoge-
MADISON, Wis. (CBS) The wild and wacky Big Ten might actually be starting to sort itself out.
Ohio State, the consensus favorite in the conference this year and undoubtedly the most talented Big Ten team, separated itself from the pack Saturday with a vital 58-52 win over the Badgers at the Kohl Center.
The significance of the win cannot be overstated. Ohio State had not won at the Kohl Center since 2000, meaning the Buckeyes had never beat Bo Ryan in Madison. Thad Matta was winless in six tries.
"It's a great win because I think when you look at Wisconsin basketball, it has stood the test of time, how many times we and a lot of other teams have come in here and gone home without a win," Matta said after the game. "It definitely is a good win for our program."
So good of a win that Jared Sullinger (24 points, 10 rebounds) and William Buford (11 points, six rebounds) said they had never seen their head coach that happy after a win.
"I was happy, I don't know if I was elated," Matta said. "Let me say this, I wanted them to know that I was happy with their performance because we put a lot in to coming up here.
"William Buford was 0-3 (in Madison) and I was 0-6, so yeah, I was happy. It beats the last six times I was here."
It's the kind of win Ohio State usually doesn't get and with first place in the Big Ten on the line, it gave the Buckeyes (19-3, 8-2 Big Ten) some separation in a wide open conference.
Of course, it's only one game of separation, as OSU leads Michigan (17-6, 7-3) by one game in the standings – a number that could shrink down to just half a game if the Wolverines win at Michigan State Sunday.
But with back-to-back home games coming up for Ohio State, and winnable road games left on the schedule, the Buckeyes made a statement Sunday that goes beyond what the numbers in the standings say.
They're clearly the Big Ten's best team.
Of course, it wasn't easy. Winning in Madison never is. But after Jordan Taylor caught fire last year to erase a 15-point second half deficit and beat the then-No. 1 Buckeyes, Ohio State – and specifically Aaron Craft – bottled up Taylor and made sure that didn't happen again. Having gone three whole games without a turnover, Taylor was forced into three turnovers by the Buckeyes Saturday, including two in the final three minutes. Buford converted one of those turnovers into a three-pointer – Ohio State's only three of the game – to ice the game.
And sure, it helped that Wisconsin only hit 5-of-27 threes and at one point missed 15 in a row.
But the Buckeyes will take a win at the Kohl Center any way they can. And there's no doubt they deserved their first victory in 10 tries in Madison.
It was the kind of win a Big Ten champion earns on the road.
Of course, there is still plenty of basketball to be played, and after the game, Jordan Taylor was the first to remind Ohio State of that fact.
"The race is still there," he said. "It's still not over so there's no time to mope or feel sorry for yourself."
There's also no time for the Buckeyes to feel too good about themselves and Matta was quick to point out that there's still eight games left to be played. But just over halfway through the Big Ten season, the Buckeyes are certainly in the driver's seat.
It's their conference to lose.
Adam is the Sports Content Producer for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the White Sox, Blackhawks and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHogeCBS and read more of his columns here.
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