Wisconsin and Ohio State could be contenders in the strong Big Ten, but the Badgers may have caught a break in the timing of their first matchup with the Buckeyes.
That's because No. 15 Ohio State will remain without swingman Evan Turner as it begins the conference season Thursday afternoon against 23rd-ranked Wisconsin, making it a more difficult task for the Buckeyes to avoid their eighth straight loss in Madison.
Turner had emerged as one of the nation's top players, averaging 20.6 points, 12.9 rebounds and 6.6 assists in his first seven games before an awkward fall from a dunk broke bones in his back against Eastern Michigan on Dec. 5.
The junior could return sometime in January, and the Badgers (10-2) will get the chance to face Ohio State (10-2) at least once and possibly twice without the Buckeyes' biggest star. The teams meet again in Columbus on Jan. 16.
Ohio State lost its first full game without Turner, 74-66 at then-No. 22 Butler on Dec. 12, but has since won three straight against weaker competition. The Buckeyes haven't played since Dec. 22, when they posted a 72-59 victory over Cleveland State.
Junior David Lighty scored a career-high 30, continuing his impressive play with Turner sidelined. In the last five games, Lighty is averaging 18.8 points and 6.0 rebounds while shooting 55.0 percent from the field.
"He was tremendous all the way through," coach Thad Matta said.
The Buckeyes still weren't satisfied, however, after the struggling Vikings hung within four points midway through the second half.
"We still didn't play to our best capability at stretches," junior forward Dallas Lauderdale said. "We can't have that happen if we're going to compete at the level we're trying to get to."
They'll certainly get a tougher test from the defensive-minded Badgers, who have been especially stingy at the Kohl Center, allowing 51.1 points per game.
Ohio State hasn't won there since Jan. 13, 2000, losing its seventh straight Feb. 14 when Wisconsin forced 19 turnovers in a 55-50 victory. The Buckeyes have only played once in an opponent's arena this season -- the loss to Butler -- after going 3-6 in Big Ten road games in 2008-09.
The Badgers are 128-10 at home since coach Bo Ryan took over in 2001, including an 8-0 mark this season that features a 73-69 win over then-No. 6 Duke on Dec. 2.
Wisconsin capped its non-conference schedule with a 79-43 blowout of Illinois-Chicago on Sunday. The Badgers moved back into the rankings after a two-week absence, and Ryan seemed satisfied with his team's preparation for the Big Ten season.
"There are things that could've gone both ways, for better or for worse," Ryan said. "Now that's set aside, now we go play in the Big Ten. Let's see what we've learned. Ohio State's learned some things too and that's the team we're going to play next. It'll be that way all year obviously."
The coach may be happiest about the emergence of 6-foot-10 junior Jon Leuer, who is averaging 21.4 points and 8.6 rebounds while shooting 69.0 percent from the field in his last five games.
Leuer had a season-high five assists Sunday, when the Flames often tried to double-team him.
"Jon was able to pass out of the post and he found guys," Ryan said. "Again, that's all part of him maturing as a player."
Wisconsin and Ohio State each went 10-8 in Big Ten play last season.