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DEREK MONTGOMERY/Herald photo

After fighting through an arduous home stretch to claim its third-straight 20-win season, No. 23 Wisconsin (20-7, 11-5 Big Ten) will head to the United Center in Chicago this weekend looking to defend its Big Ten tournament crown. By posting a pair of critical Kohl Center wins against Indiana and Purdue, the Badgers managed to secure the third seed and a bye in the opening round of the conference dance.

“I think the last couple of games that we’ve played, we’re starting to get some things down,” Wisconsin swingman Alando Tucker said. “Guys are realizing that it’s going to be serious, it’s going to be tough.”

Last season, in head coach Bo Ryan’s third year with the team, Wisconsin rolled through the conference bracket behind then-junior offensive threats Devin Harris and Mike Wilkinson, who averaged 23.7 and 17.7 points per game in the tournament, respectively. Now a senior and the squad’s leader from the frontcourt, Wilkinson hopes to find success on familiar ground with a slightly altered supporting cast.

“Everyone’s tired, everyone’s body is a little bit sore. You just learn to focus better and fight through it — that usually gets the job done,” Wilkinson said. “We were fortunate enough last year to have a lot of guys step up with real focus throughout the tourney.”

Wisconsin’s first opponent will be determined in a bout this afternoon between sixth-seeded Ohio State and 11th-seeded Penn State. While the Buckeyes — fresh off their stunner of the previously unbeaten Fighting Illini — prove the favored candidate for Friday’s quarterfinal matchup, practices this week have focused on preparing for either scenario.

“We take any of our opponents as a threat,” freshman guard Michael Flowers said. “Anything can happen on any given night.”

If Ryan’s squad draws Ohio State, the point of concern will likely be containing the inside presence of Buckeye goliath Terence Dials. With the exception of a first-half 16-point outburst in Columbus Feb. 27, the Badgers have achieved modest success in this regard, limiting Dials to just 7-for-15 from the field in the remaining three periods.

Averaging 16.4 points per game, the 250-pound junior center constitutes the Buckeyes’ primary scoring option. Dials earned second team all-Big Ten honors Wednesday after posting double-digit point totals in all but three conference games this season.

“He’s a beast when he gets the ball in the post,” Tucker said of Dials.

However, in the event Penn State advances, the Wisconsin forwards believe they will hardly be spared the challenge of a post battle. Sporting an average of 35.1 boards per game — good for third in the Big Ten — the Nittany Lions floor a powerful frontcourt led by junior Aaron Johnson.

One of the premier double-double threats in the league, Johnson methodically uses his colossal frame to box out for second-chance baskets.

“He’s one of the guys you really have to control,” Tucker said. “When we played at Penn State, he came up big for them. He’s gonna hustle and he has great hands. Both him and Dials have really good hands — when their [guards] toss the ball up in the air, they’re going to go get it.”

The Penn State power forward currently tops the conference in offensive rebounds by a margin of 28. The runner-up: Penn State small forward Geary Claxton, who leads the Nittany Lions in scoring with an average of 12.4 points per game. To counter Penn State on the putback, Wisconsin will look to Wilkinson and Tucker to defend the strong-side glass.

Tucker sat out much of last season — including the Badgers’ tournament title run —

with a foot injury sustained in December 2003. Despite being hampered by lower-leg and foot injuries again this season, the sophomore still garnered all-Big Ten honors after recovering midway through the Badgers’ conference schedule.

“Just being out here on the court at this time of year, and actually being able to run up and down the floor … it just feels good,” Tucker said. “I can think back to last year, when I had to sit here and watch these guys practice and I couldn’t take part. It was horrible.”

The differentiating factor between Wisconsin’s prospective opponents lies in the backcourt. While Ohio State features a quartet of talented guards, the Nittany Lion backcourt has stumbled notably since losing promising sophomore Marlon Smith to a potentially career-ending brain condition earlier in the season.

In the only meeting between Wisconsin and Penn State this year, the Badger starting guards racked up 38 points in a 76-50 rout of the Lions at Bryce Jordan. Against Ohio State, on the other hand, the entire Wisconsin backcourt averaged just 27 points in the pair of contests. The Buckeye guards similarly struggled.

“We know they probably know what we’re trying to do, and we know what they’re trying to do,” Wisconsin guard Kammron Taylor said. “So it’s just about going out there and executing.”

In addition to a more proven backcourt, the Buckeyes would also bring a great deal more momentum to the table than the Nittany Lions. Battling through the current campaign without the hope of an NCAA berth — as a result of a self-imposed ban issued by the university prior to the 2004-05 season — the Buckeyes carry the advantage of a team playing with nothing to lose.

After upsetting No. 1 Illinois Sunday in Columbus, Ohio State stands as a quarterfinal foe the Wisconsin players aren’t taking lightly.

“They wanted it more than Illinois,” Flowers said. “Illinois is still the team to beat, obviously, but now Ohio State has that confidence, a little swagger behind them.”

Whichever team they face Friday, Wisconsin will be hunting not only to improve its seeding for the NCAAs, but also to defend the league tournament title. In fact, according to several Wisconsin players, the latter remains the team’s primary goal.

“Now it’s to the point of survival,” Tucker said. “Everything has to pick up because you know, coming into the game, no matter what team it is, everybody’s going to step up a level. So you have to be ready to challenge that level that they’re going to bring.”

“I really feel that we can do it. I know a lot of people out there probably don’t think we can get it done,” Taylor added. “But with the group of guys that we have and the way we work, I really think we can.”