Wisconsin is set to begin its quest for a sixth Big Ten title under Bo Ryan, though this marks first time the Ryan-led Badgers are playing with the conference's biggest target on their back.
Fourth-ranked Wisconsin opens league play Wednesday against Penn State, which is hoping to build on one of the most successful non-conference runs in school history.
With most of the core back from last season's Final Four team, the Badgers were slotted No. 1 in the Big Ten's preseason poll for the first time in Ryan's 14 seasons at the helm. They've responded well to the accolades, posting an average scoring margin of plus-21.1 while starting 12-1.
Though Wisconsin lost its only meeting with a ranked opponent, 80-70 against then-No. 4 Duke on Dec. 3, it has defeated several top-100 RPI teams. Opponents have averaged 49.4 points on 34.6 percent shooting since the Blue Devils shot 65.2 percent in Madison.
Frank Kaminsky closed out non-conference play with his Big Ten-leading fifth double-double, posting 25 points, 11 rebounds and six blocks in Sunday's 68-56 win over Buffalo. He is averaging 16.5 points and 7.9 rebounds and is shooting 42.1 percent from 3-point range.
"That's why Frank is the All-American, best player in college," said Nigel Hayes, the team's third-leading scorer with 11.9 points per game. "That's why it's an honor to play on a team with him. When other guys are just being their average basketball players we got Frank that we can give the ball to and he'll carry us to the promised land."
Ryan is hoping for more consistency out of Kaminsky's teammates, however. Second-leading scorer Sam Dekker (12.1 ppg) had 13 points against Buffalo but was 4 of 11 from the field, while Hayes' struggles were a key factor in Wisconsin's only loss. The sophomore who averages 11.9 points was 1 for 5 with four points versus Duke.
"I'd like to see five, six, seven guys every night be a steady influence," Ryan said. "But that's hard."
Wisconsin has won 18 of 20 in the series, last losing 36-33 in the 2011 Big Ten tournament. The Badgers have won 16 straight home meetings including a 13-0 mark at the Kohl Center.
Penn State (12-1) is receiving votes in the AP poll after recording its most non-conference wins in school history, only losing 106-97 in double-overtime to Charlotte on Nov. 20.
The Nittany Lions' 10-game winning streak is their longest since opening 13-0 in 1995-96, though their resume has come under scrutiny. Penn State is outscoring opponents by an average of 6.7 points and its best win was likely a 64-51 victory over George Washington on Dec. 14. It does boast the conference's leading scorer, however, in D.J. Newbill (21.4 ppg).
"I thought it was a great non-conference," coach Pat Chambers said. "It gave us a variety of styles of play that are going to prepare us for the Big Ten. We can still get a lot better which is really scary to me on how good we can be. Everybody knows we had a very good non-con."
Penn State lost its first six Big Ten games last season before splitting its last 12.
"We need a better start," Chambers said. "It's nice to be 12-1. But we're 0-0 and focused on Wisconsin."
Penn State is 1-15 against top-five teams since 2002, only defeating then-No. 4 Michigan on Feb. 27, 2013.