The Wisconsin Badgers men's basketball team heads into Thursday's Big Ten opener against Ohio State brimming with confidence.
The Badgers closed out the non-conference portion of their schedule Sunday afternoon with a dominating 79-43 win over Illinois-Chicago to improve their record to 10-2.
For a team expected to finish in the middle of the Big Ten, coming out of a non-conference schedule as tough as the Badgers' with 10 wins is quite an accomplishment.
With wins over Arizona, Maryland, Marquette, and of course Duke, the Badgers appear on the road to overachievement once again.
Their only losses came against Gonzaga in the Maui Invitational and to UW-Green Bay in a stunning upset.
But overall, Wisconsin couldn't have asked for a better start to the 2009-10 season.
That said, the easy part of their schedule is over.
Easy you say? You may be wondering how having a non-conference schedule that included Duke, Marquette, and Gonzaga is easy?
Well, this year is the strongest the Big Ten has been this entire decade. Purdue, Michigan State, Ohio State, Illinois, Penn State, and Northwestern are all playing as well as they have in years. For Wisconsin to even compete in this league, they have to play as well as they did in non-conference play.
That means Wisconsin needs to get off to a strong start. Luckily, the Badgers catch the Buckeyes at a time when they will be far from their best.
Ohio State will be without star guard Evan Turner, possibly the best player in the Big Ten, after he broke vertebrae in his back after landing on it following a dunk.
Looking at Wisconsin's upcoming schedule, it's apparent that the Badgers need to take advantage of any breaks they get.
The Badgers certainly don't ease into their Big Ten schedule. After Ohio State, they go to Penn State, head to Michigan State after that, then come back home for an afternoon game against Purdue.
That makes Thursday's game against the Buckeyes absolutely huge for Wisconsin. At the beginning of the year, what looked to be one of Wisconsin's toughest games could actually be one of their easiest for a decent stretch.
Not to say that the game against Ohio State is easy by any means, but playing at home and with Turner out for the Buckeyes, this game looks like far less of a challenge than playing at PSU, MSU, or home against the Boilermakers.
Another break for the Badgers is the fact that the team appears to be on track defensively following that loss to UWGB.
After giving up 88 points in the loss, Wisconsin's defense has been impenetrable. In their four wins, the Badgers have given up 63, 42, 58, and 43 points and are allowing only 58 points this year.
Granted, three of those four wins were against much lesser opponents, but supposedly so was Green Bay.
Jon Leuer has also emerged during that time as maybe the Badgers go-to player, over even Trevon Hughes. Leuer is currently averaging 17 points per game, which leads the team, and is asserting himself down low.
Although all of these things are going right for Wisconsin heading into the opener, the game will still simply come down to who plays better.
Ohio State does take a big hit losing Turner. But they still have other options.
Guards David Lighty and Jon Diebler are both averaging over 14 points a game, and William Buford chips in with about 13.
Offensively, the Buckeyes average over 80 points a game, and although this will be one of the better defenses they've faced, they are still one of the best offensive teams in the Big Ten.
The Buckeyes only give up 59 points as well. Although Wisconsin is playing well offensively, averaging over 73 points a game, the Ohio State defense will be one of the best they will face this year.
That said, losing Turner does hurt. You can't just replace 18.5 points, 11.4 rebounds, and 5.9 assists per game. No way.
Simply put, Wisconsin needs to take advantage. Getting a win over one of the conference powerhouses, even without their best player, will be huge for this team's confidence.
Turner or no Turner, Ohio State will still be tough. But for Wisconsin to compete day in and day out in the Big Ten, they need to catch some breaks. They simply don't have the talent to compete every game without it.
Luckily for them, they caught their first one right away. Opportunities like this don't come about too often. Now they need to take advantage.