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By Rusty Miller | Associated Press
COLUMBUS -- Having just dispensed with their first losing streak -- a meager two games -- in the past three years, the 13th-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes get little time to rest.
For that matter, neither does their next opponent.
After a closer-than-the-score-indicates 69-59 win over scrappy Northwestern on Thursday night, the Buckeyes hit the road this weekend to play at No. 20 Wisconsin. The Badgers were also busy the same time as Ohio State, losing 58-53 in overtime at Minnesota.
The game is a huge road test for the Buckeyes.
Deshaun Thomas, leading the Big Ten in scoring, has been around for some big victories in foreign territory the last two seasons. He knows what such a win can mean to a team.
"It ignites everybody and gives us confidence in our team," he said. "It'd be a big boost for us."
With the season winding down, the game will be a way of winnowing the Big Ten field for the stretch run: The Buckeyes and Badgers are each 8-4 in conference play and tied for third with Michigan, two games back of co-leaders Indiana and Michigan State.
"What are we, like third in the Big Ten? So, you know, (if we win), people are going to have to watch out at Michigan State and Indiana," Thomas said.
Wisconsin (17-8, 8-4) is as good as anybody in the nation at home. The Badgers are 179-17 over the last 12 years at Kohl Center, including 29-11 against teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 25.
One of those losses came a year ago when the Buckeyes beat Wisconsin 58-52 right in front of the Grateful Red student section.
No one knows how difficult it is to win away from home in the Big Ten than Thad Matta -- and he's had a lot of success while winning conference titles the last three years and five of the last seven during his nine seasons at Ohio State (18-6, 8-4).
"That's something that is a lot easier said than done," he said of winning on the road. "No. 1, it's just the competitive nature of how this league is. No. 2, it's the venues you go into, every game is as challenging of an environment as it can be."
Wisconsin lost at Ohio State on Jan. 29 in a bruising matchup, 58-49. The Badgers were reminded again of how cruel the road can be on Thursday night at Minnesota. It was their third consecutive overtime game.
"We just did not hit free throws and had a couple tough turnovers," coach Bo Ryan said of his team's play down the stretch.
Now the tables are turned and Wisconsin is back before friendly and familiar faces.
Thomas knows that neither team can afford another loss.
"Guys are thinking about it," he said. "If we lose one more game, it could be not our chance this year to win the Big Ten."
To underscore the importance of Sunday's game, the Buckeyes have not exactly been road warriors.
They're just 3-4 on the road this season, splitting their six conference games away from home. Their three wins have come against arguably the three worst teams in the Big Ten: Nebraska, Penn State and Purdue.
The Buckeyes have come close to pulling off a big win -- they led in the second half at Michigan State and at Michigan, games that they eventually lost by a combined five points. The game with the Wolverines even went to overtime -- something that has become commonplace in the ultracompetitive and evenly matched Big Ten.
Asked if his team was almost facing a series of elimination games similar to an early start to the NCAA tournament, Matta chuckled.
"I feel like it's been that way since January," he said.
Matta said he doesn't pay much attention to the standings, but is aware his players do.
"I know they know. I know they understand where we are, but we've never sat down and said, 'OK, fellas, here (we are),'" he said. "Some schools have the standings (around their locker room), but we don't."
Thomas has been through enough hostile environments to have a good idea what it takes to play your best when everyone in the arena is against you. It takes energy, and talent and at least one more vital element.
"You've got to have tough skin in this league," he said.