OSU junior forward Marc Loving (2) goes up for a shot during a game against Maryland on Jan. 31 at the Schottenstein Center. OSU lost, 61-66. Credit: Muyao Shen | Asst. Photo Editor

OSU junior forward Marc Loving (2) goes up for a shot during a game against Maryland on Jan. 31 at the Schottenstein Center. OSU lost, 61-66. Credit: Muyao Shen | Asst. Photo Editor

Although the Ohio State men’s basketball team put forth a much better effort against Maryland on Sunday, it still lost.

Sure, it was only by five points, 30 fewer than when the two teams met in mid-January, but OSU coach Thad Matta wouldn’t call it a moral victory.

He’s “never been a big fan” of them, he said after the 66-61 loss.

But, as the Buckeyes get set for a road game against Wisconsin on Thursday at 7 p.m., Matta acknowledged that his team gained some confidence from taking the now-No. 4 Terrapins down to the wire.

“I told the guys what a drastic improvement from two and a half weeks ago,” Matta said on Wednesday. “There is some good things happening.”

Players reinforced the team’s overall disdain for so-called moral victories, but they did say they feel like the 30-point improvement against one of the nation’s top teams serves them well heading into the Badgers’ hostile environment.

“It just shows that if we play the right way, we can play with, and potentially beat, anybody,” sophomore forward Keita Bates-Diop said.

Freshman forward Mickey Mitchell added that despite coming up short, they “did a lot of things better.”

One area, though, that the Buckeyes still need to improve upon is finishing out the first and second halves on the right note. For such a young team, having just two 20-minute periods can be a change of pace. With that comes the potential for focus and intensity to wane as play progresses. Fixing that has been a focal point in practice.

“We kind of have mental lapse, lose our minds a little bit,” Bates-Diop said. “Take a deep breath, one possession at time … and just execute.”

If OSU cannot manufacture that consistent focus and avoid costly mistakes down the stretch, it will continue to cost it against the Badgers and beyond, Matta said.

Parallels on paper

Based on what the stat sheet indicates, there are a lot of similarities between the Badgers and Buckeyes.

The team’s averages are within two points of each other offensively, while opponents are averaging just a one-point difference. OSU sits at seventh in the Big Ten standings. Wisconsin is No. 8.

Even with all the similarities, both statistically and in regards to the game’s impact on conference seeding, the Buckeyes’ approach is the same.

“Every game for our team has significant importance,” Matta said. “I just want us to go out there and play our best basketball.”

For that to happen, OSU will have to take care of what Bates-Diop calls Wisconsin’s “three-headed monster.”

The Badgers’ troika consists of juniors Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig and redshirt freshman forward Ethan Happ. Combined, the trio scores 61.7 percent of Wisconsin’s points and collects close to half its rebounds.

Bates-Diop said the whole team needs to “key in on those guys” to have a chance to win. Matta shared his player’s assessment, but he warned that too much attention on three players could lead to an unsung hero stepping up.

“You can’t let another guy get going,” he said.

Beyond the Badgers

After Thursday night’s showdown at the Kohl Center, OSU will have a few days off before preparing for a rematch against Northwestern. OSU won the first meeting 65-56 on Jan. 6.

The Buckeyes and Wildcats are set to play on Tuesday at the Schottenstein Center. Tipoff is scheduled for 8 p.m.