Whenever anyone in the media discusses the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team these days, they invariably reach the same conclusion.
Almost without fail, it goes like this: UW is a team that can beat anyone in the country and a team that can lose to anyone in the country.
Forget for a moment that you could say that about most teams in the Big Ten Conference this year or, for that matter, most teams across the nation. Or that UW’s worst loss all season, at least in terms of the RPI, was to Iowa, which remains on the bubble for the NCAA tournament.
The Badgers fit the description as an inconsistent team particularly well because their offense has ranged from awful to awfully good, sometimes in the same half. They’ve won often enough to be ranked 17th in the nation, but people still think their fitful play on offense and their many down-to-the-wire games make them as likely to suffer an upset as to spring one.
But on a night when top-ranked Indiana lost at Minne sota to send the Big Ten race into high gear for the final two weeks, UW showed signs that it is breaking its stereotype. Indeed, if the Badgers keep playing like they did in their 77-46 rout of Nebraska on Tuesday night at the Kohl Center, they’re going to force people to change their opinions.
Of course, those opinions were warranted for much of the season. UW is showing unmistakable signs of improvement, however, and the victory over the Cornhuskers was the Badgers’ third in a row, all by 22 points or more. The offense that had fans scratching their heads as recently as the Minnesota game on Feb. 14 has suddenly caught up with the defense and rebounding.
“I thought we played extremely well to do what we did tonight,” UW coach Bo Ryan said.
While Minnesota students were storming the court in Minneapolis after the Gophers’ 77-73 victory over Indiana, UW students were taking great delight in watching the Badgers carve up a pretty good Cornhuskers defense in a first half that was UW’s best offensive showing of the season.
Trailing 10-8, the Badgers went on a game-deciding 27-4 run that saw them score on 11 of 12 possessions. Three 3-point baskets by freshman forward Sam Dekker keyed the run, but everyone in UW’s rotation had a role either as a shooter, cutter, driver or passer.
In taking a 44-23 halftime lead, the Badgers had a remarkable 13 assists on 16 baskets. Many of those assists came on the drive-and-kick move that has become a staple of UW’s offense since the loss to the Gophers.
It only seems like there were many games this season when UW had a mere 16 baskets. Fact is, it only happened once — against Michigan State on Jan. 22. But Tuesday night, UW shot 50.9 percent from the field, the second time in three games it has topped 50 percent after failing to do so in its first 12 Big Ten games.
“Just look at the number of assists to baskets scored and you know we were moving the ball,” Ryan said. “For us to be successful offensively, we need to make the extra pass. We’re not known to have a guy who can explode consistently.”
The Badgers had the same group of guys when they escaped with a 47-41 victory over the Cornhuskers in the second game of the Big Ten season, one in which neither team shot 40 percent. It was entirely different this time around, in large part because UW just keeps getting better. The emergence of Dekker and guard Ben Brust as consistent scorers from the outside has opened up opportunities for others all over the court, but especially inside.
“They play with way more purpose and their ball movement is excellent,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said. “We had trouble keeping their guards in front of us, which created pretty easy draw-and-kick opportunities.”
Things went so well for UW’s offense that forward Ryan Evans, mired in a mystifying slump at the free throw line, went 2-for-2 using a new jump-shot technique suggested to him by Ryan.
Evans praised the UW fans — rightly so — for sticking with him through the hard times and encouraging him during games. And Ryan praised Evans for continuing to work hard all season to break out of the slump.
“It feels good in life when you’re working on overcoming something that is a negative,” Ryan said.
No team would know that more than the Badgers, who are working on erasing the doubts people have about them. Now, they’re right back in the race for a Big Ten title no one thought they had a chance to win after point guard Josh Gasser went down with a knee injury in October.
The victory moved UW into a second-place tie with Michigan State, one game behind league-leading Indiana with three games to play. As always, however, the Badgers are more concerned about the way they’re playing than the possibilities down the road.
“I think we’re playing at a high level right now,” forward Jared Berggren said. “The last few games, we’ve been able to win by pretty good margins and, more importantly, if you look at the quality of the play. Offensively, we’re playing at a high level.”
No one — and I mean no one — was saying that about UW a month ago.