BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — While there has been clear improvement on the defensive end over the past month, the University of Wisconsin men's basketball team will find out just how far it's come in that area Tuesday night at Assembly Hall.
Better execution on defense has helped UW put together a six-game winning streak, but it hasn't been tested by an offense like Indiana's. The Badgers' defense will have to be superb, and even that may not be enough when they take on the No. 2 Hoosiers in a matchup of the only two unbeaten teams in league play.
Indiana leads the nation in scoring at 87.9 points per game. The Hoosiers are shooting 51.1 percent overall, 41.9 percent from 3-point range and 73.8 percent from the free throw line to lead the Big Ten in all three categories.
Perhaps the challenge of slowing down the Hoosiers was floating around in UW coach Bo Ryan's head when he was asked following a 74-51 victory over No. 12 Illinois on Saturday how much better he believes the Badgers have gotten defensively in the last month.
"Well, guys are working at it," Ryan said. "But we'll see what happens in the next game. They're trying to learn the rules, they're trying to learn our absolutes. It's a challenge every day, because in practice we've got some guys who will break us down at times if you get a little lazy or get a little non-attentive.
"So it looks pretty good today, but what are you going to have tomorrow and what are you going to have your next game? That's still with us something that never changes, our attitude about that."
Still, there have been some positive signs for the Badgers, particularly in Big Ten play.
Penn State, Nebraska and Illinois have registered points per possession totals of 0.88, 0.73 and 0.88, respectively, against the Badgers.
The Illinois game was the most encouraging sign for UW that it has the potential to be an elite defense. The Fighting Illini had just two field goals and nine points in their first 23 possessions.
A big reason for UW's improvement on defense is having a healthy Mike Bruesewitz in the lineup. The Badgers depend on the senior forward, who spent much of the early part of the season getting his legs back under him following preseason surgery to repair a severe laceration on his lower right leg and a concussion, which sidelined him for two games in December.
UW's younger players — three freshmen and two sophomores are among its top nine players in minutes — have also done a better job of following Ryan's rules on defense.
"Guys are just starting to really communicate more," sophomore point guard Traevon Jackson said. "We've been playing with each other every day now, so we're getting a feel for each other and it's helping out a lot. The more in synch we are as a defense, it helps out a lot."
Not to be overlooked is Indiana's improvement on defense. It's easy to be wowed by the offensive numbers the Hoosiers have put up, but some of that production is a direct result of the work they do on the defensive end.
Indiana creates several scoring chances each game by forcing turnovers that lead to fast-break opportunities. The Hoosiers' defense has been one of the biggest things holding them back in recent years — even last season, when they went 27-9 — but it's come a long way and has given Indiana a chance to be an elite team this year.
"We've got to get good shots," said UW assistant coach Gary Close, who was in charge of putting together the scouting report on the Hoosiers. "They love to score in transition, so we've got to get back and make them try to beat us five-on-five if possible. They can score. The reason why they're scoring as high as they're scoring is because they're scoring quick, so we've got to try to slow them down by playing real good defense and getting back."
Crean praises Berggren
Indiana sophomore Cody Zeller has gotten a lot of publicity this season — and rightfully so — but Hoosiers coach Tom Crean doesn't think people should overlook UW senior Jared Berggren when talking about the most productive post players in the country.
Berggren, who leads the Badgers with 13.4 points per game and a league-high 2.1 blocked shots per game, is coming off his first career double-double — a 15-point, 12-rebound outing against Illinois.
"I think Berggren is a pro center," Crean said. "When a guy like that can score like that in the post the way he can, that can move his feet, that can shoot the ball the way that he does, we feel like we've got a really, really tough matchup there."
Berggren held his own in two meetings with Zeller and the Hoosiers last year. But Zeller, a 7-footer who averages 16.6 points and 7.8 rebounds per game and is shooting 63.4 percent from the field, has raised his game since a fantastic freshman season.
"He's gotten stronger and he's putting the ball on the floor a little bit more and is still a bear in the post," Close said. "What I like about him is he just plays. He's very under control and if he's got to score 30 one game, great; if he's got to score 10 the next, that's fine. He's just a very composed, complete, solid, talented player."
Yogi's a bear
Jackson will be tested on both ends by Indiana freshman point guard Yogi Ferrell. UW associate head coach Greg Gard is quite familiar with Ferrell, who is second in the Big Ten with 5.3 assists per game and has an impressive 2.5 assist-to-turnover ratio, after watching him for years on the AAU circuit.
"He just has a presence as a point guard," Gard said. "He has a mindset or a mentality of a Jordan Taylor. He has that leadership quality."