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Buckeyes, Badgers Set For 1-2 Showdown

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AP
The way Ohio State coach Thad Matta sees it, a freshman-laden team is much-improved by February. He's banking on that Sunday when the Buckeyes take on Wisconsin in the first No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup between Big Ten teams.

The Buckeyes, who have four freshmen among their top eight players, lost 72-69 on Jan. 9 in Madison. The first-year players, including 7-foot center Greg Oden and point guard Mike Conley Jr., have been quick studies since that loss.

"They've obviously gotten more experience under their belt. They've grown up a little bit," Matta said. "They have played seven Big Ten road games now. We've taken them to the No. 3 (Florida), No. 4 (North Carolina) and No. 5 (Wisconsin) teams in the country on their home floors, so I think it's just a maturity thing that guys have a better understanding of what college basketball is all about."

The Buckeyes (25-3, 13-1) hold a one-game edge in the conference with two games left, closing the regular season at Michigan on March 3. Should they beat Wisconsin, they clinch their second straight outright Big Ten crown.

The Badgers (26-3, 12-2) are coming off a loss at Michigan State on Tuesday night and would like nothing better than to disappoint an expected overflow crowd at Value City Arena.

"Michigan State got the best of us in the last 3, 4 minutes," Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. "We needed to do some things that we didn't accomplish, but that's going to happen sometimes. So you've just got to get ready for the next one."

Ohio State hasn't been dominating teams, yet has rolled to 12 wins in a row. The Buckeyes have had two close calls against Big Ten cellar-dweller Penn State, and have won five other conference games by less than 10 points.

Ryan thinks those trials have helped season the young Buckeyes.

"Without a doubt, they're better," he said. "They've been able to have nights where they haven't shot it well and still have come out on the left-hand side (of the won-lost ledger)."

Oden had played only a few weeks when the teams met the last time. He still wears an elastic brace on the right (shooting) wrist that kept him sidelined through the first seven games. A two-time national high school player of the year, he's averaging almost 16 points, 10 rebounds and four blocked shots.

"You can't look back at the last game and take this game as a revenge game," Oden said. "We just have to come back and hopefully get a win."

Conley, Oden's high school teammate in Indianapolis, leads the Big Ten in steals and assists and has been a steady hand at the point for the Buckeyes.

"It's going to be a crazy atmosphere," he said of Sunday's showdown. "The Big Ten championship is on the line. It is a rematch with the two top teams. Wisconsin is a great team. We played them at their home and now we get to play them at home."

In the first meeting, the Buckeyes had matchup problems with Alando Tucker. That's been a common theme for teams trying to contain the favorite for Big Ten player of the year.

Marcus Landry and Brian Butch held their own inside against Oden and Michael Flowers, and Kammron Taylor provided strong transition and defensive play.

Ryan isn't concerned about how his team will respond to the upset in East Lansing. He's confident the Badgers will follow Tucker.

"Alando Tucker really leads for us," Ryan said. "There's leading by example and then there's Alando Tucker. He's in another realm."