WISCONSIN INDIANA

Wisconsin's Jared Berggren (40) and Indiana's Evan Anderson fight for a rebound in the first half. Wisconsin hosted Indiana in Madison, Wis. on Thursday, January 26, 2012.

Craig Schreiner -- Wisconsin State Journal

It is a description most coaches avoid at all costs.

A must-win game.

Coaches hate that phrase because, should their team fall in a game they've called must-win, what do they tell their players at practice the next day? That's especially true when it's late January and the college men's basketball season has two months to go.

As much as coaches Bo Ryan of the University of Wisconsin and Tom Crean of Indiana refused to attach a label to Thursday night's game between the 25th-ranked Badgers and 16th-ranked Hoosiers at the Kohl Center, there was no denying its importance. For two teams lurking just behind the lead pack midway through the Big Ten Conference season, this matchup looked like an elimination game.

Sure, the Big Ten standings were a bit more jumbled than many observers expected in the first month. However, the race started to sort itself out in the past week. Going into Thursday's games, Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan pushed their records to 6-2, with UW settling in right behind at 5-3 and Indiana tied for sixth at 4-4. That made this a must-win game for both teams.

Even though UW and Indiana suffered three-game losing streaks in conference play, they somehow still had designs on a championship after making solid recoveries heading into Thursday's game. However, neither team could afford to lose many more games, especially at home.

The Badgers didn't lose Thursday, mostly because they refused to let it happen. In a game that was indicative of how close the top seven or eight teams in the nation's top-ranked conference are this season, UW posted its fifth consecutive victory with a 57-50 decision over Indiana. In the process, the Badgers, once 1-3 in league play, improved to 6-3, a half-game behind the threesome at the top.

"I think we just had to keep believing that we had a good team," UW forward Jared Berggren said. "We knew that. Despite the struggles at the start of the Big Ten, we knew what we had here. We knew we had guys that weren't going to give up easy and we were able to turn things around and scratch and claw our way back into things. And now we're right in the thick of things in the Big Ten race."

Ryan and Crean spent the week talking about the day-to-day process of getting better instead of what the game meant for their respective programs. But that's what good coaches do.

Still, the last thing either one could afford was to let Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan separate themselves further from the pack. It might be possible to run down one team in the second half of the season, but chasing down three is far less likely.

UW's margin for error is particularly slim after it suffered two home losses - to Iowa and Michigan State - early in the season. A four-game winning streak that included victories at Purdue and Illinois helped make up for that, but the Badgers could ill-afford any more losses at the Kohl Center.

Indiana was the nation's surprise team in rolling to a 15-1 record that included victories over then-No. 1 Kentucky and then-No. 2 Ohio State. The Hoosiers took their lumps during Crean's first three seasons as the former Marquette coach worked to resuscitate a program that fell on hard times.

With 6-foot-11 freshman Cody Zeller joining an otherwise veteran team, the Hoosiers finally turned the corner in impressive fashion this season. Indiana lost some steam with the three straight losses, but rebounded with a resounding victory over Penn State and showed up in Madison ready to reassert itself in the race.

That didn't happen, in large part because the Badgers were typically tough-minded down the stretch of a back-and-forth game. The Hoosiers' record is no fluke, but they still are learning how to win close games after three years near the bottom of the conference. That inexperience showed up down the stretch.

Just as important as staying within striking distance of the leaders, UW is looking more and more like a contender. During the Badgers' winning streak, they've gotten consistent contributions from multiple sources.

Against Indiana, it was four players in double figures despite poor overall shooting, solid defense against the highest-scoring team in the Big Ten and relentless offensive rebounding in the final 2 minutes, which is when the game was decided. Those things interested Ryan a lot more than UW's place in the standings.

"Our players have played hard, our players have bought in," he said. "A great example of that is tonight, to be able to be on the left-hand side shooting the way we did and the way things looked there for awhile. This team has a lot of fight in it. As long as they're doing that and playing hard, you can always remind me later what the standings were."

Actually, we'll remind him now. UW is still in the race.

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