Wisconsin has had its share of success under coach Bo Ryan, but it hasn't won a Big Ten regular-season or tournament championship in the last five seasons.
After running through their non-conference slate unscathed, the fourth-ranked Badgers begin their pursuit of a league title when they visit Northwestern on Thursday night.
Wisconsin (13-0) is off to its best start since the 1913-14 team won its first 15 and is coming off an 80-43 victory over Prairie View A&M on Saturday. The Badgers now enter Big Ten play as one of three top 5 teams in the league with No. 3 Ohio State and No. 5 Michigan State.
They haven't ended the season atop the conference since winning the regular-season and tournament titles in 2008, falling to the Buckeyes in the tournament championship game last season.
"That's an expectation," said forward Frank Kaminsky, second on the team in scoring at 14.2 points per game. ''I think you talk to anyone in our locker room, they'll say the same thing. 'We were so close last year. To not come away with it in the Big Ten tournament left a sour taste in our mouths. We really want it this year, and we're going to do everything we can to get that.''
Ryan's team is second in the conference in scoring defense allowing an average of 60.6 points, and it ranks among the national leaders in average turnovers committed with 8.5 per game.
"To finish (non-conference play) without a mark on the right-hand side, I'm very proud of them," Ryan said. "But we also know what happens with the workload now. It gets a lot heavier, a lot tougher because of the way everybody knows each other."
Sam Dekker, averaging a team-best 14.5 points, finished with 16 points and 11 rebounds Saturday.
"It's very, very exciting to look back at what you've done and win 13 games here in the non-conference season," Dekker said. "We're proud of that, but we've got a lot of work to do. That's why we're here every day working, trying to get better for Big Ten play."
Ben Brust scored 12 points and Dekker added 10 in the most recent meeting with Northwestern, a 69-41 win Feb. 20 that marked Wisconsin's sixth straight in the series.
Wildcats' coach Chris Collins, a former Duke assistant and son of former NBA coach Doug Collins, is in his first season trying to turn around a program that has never reached the NCAA tournament.
Northwestern (7-6) has struggled as expected and has shot just 35.9 percent in its five December games. It is coming off a sloppy 57-56 loss on Friday as DePaul hit a short jumper at the buzzer.
Tre Demps scored a career-high 23 points off the bench while leading scorer Drew Crawford added 15 for the Wildcats, who committed 15 turnovers.
Collins is hoping to see gradual improvement as conference play begins.
"We've got to get better," Collins said. "A lot of that is on me. I have to put these guys in position for them to be successful."
The Wildcats lost their final nine Big Ten games last season, including their only conference tournament contest.
Wisconsin has won 10 straight conference openers, while Northwestern has dropped its last seven.
- Sports & Recreation