Overall, it’s been a rude introduction to the conference season for the Wisconsin men’s basketball team in 2011-12.
Under head coach Bo Ryan, Wisconsin isn’t accustomed to beginning the conference season with an uphill climb, as the Badgers found themselves to be 1-3 against Big Ten foes for the first time since 2001. Nor do the Badgers ever make it a habit to lose at the Kohl Center, which they’ve done three times this year — twice in conference play.
But a big reason why Wisconsin has been able to swim back to the surface so quickly and hold its head above water, with a 4-3 conference record as of Jan. 21, has been the presence and hustle of junior forward Mike Bruesewitz.
He’s done it in a different way each time, but in Wisconsin’s victories against Purdue, Nebraska and Northwestern, Bruesewitz provided an essential contribution when needed most.
Early in the second half on the road against the Boilermakers on Jan. 12, the Badgers watched their 45-30 lead dwindle to 45-43 in less than just four minutes. Over that time, UW missed two shots and turned the ball over three times. Things looked grim for the Badgers, who had only won at Mackey Arena one other time since 1972.
But Bruesewitz nailed a three-pointer for Wisconsin, cushioning its lead somewhat against Purdue’s growing momentum. The Badgers’ next three possessions all were fruitless, but they held off the Boilermakers from making a bucket of their own during their next three possessions as well, all of which were ended by a Bruesewitz defensive rebound.
The 6-foot-6, 222 pound forward then sunk another three, which further stymied Purdue’s comeback and gave Wisconsin a 51-45 lead. After guard Ben Brust hit yet another three on the following possession, the Badgers effectively ended any hope Purdue had.
“That place was getting loud, and when I knocked the first one down in the corner, it kind of stunned the crowd a little bit; they got out of it a little bit,” Bruesewitz said. “And then the second (three-pointer), and then when Ben knocked down that one on the wing, it got quiet just as quick.
“It just felt good to help the team.”
Bruesewitz shot 4-for-4 that night, all from downtown, scoring 12 points — which was the first time he’d scored double digits in 12 games.
Despite Bruesewitz’s deftness at shooting the ball anywhere on the court and his capability with hitting clutch shots, the forward has never quite molded into the form of a prolific scorer for the Badgers.
As an oft-used bench player a season ago, Bruesewitz averaged 5.8 points per game during conference play. Now, as a starter, he’s scoring at a pace of 7.4 points per game against Big Ten foes.
The mold he has formed into — ever since he first arrived into Madison and will never shake off — is that of an aggressive contender for the ball whenever it is up for grabs, whose hustle and energy catapults his team when caught in the doldrums.
Following his 12-point performance at Purdue, Wisconsin welcomed Nebraska into the Kohl Center for a game in which both teams struggled to produce offensively.
Bruesewitz had four points and five rebounds to his name as he lined up for Jordan Taylor to attempt two free throws with 17 seconds left and UW up 48-45.
After converting the first shot, Taylor missed the second, but it was Bruesewitz who hustled to reach the ball first and tip it away from the crowd. Taylor then regained possession and subsequently earned two more tosses at the line, hitting both and putting the Huskers out of reach.
“Those are things that you’ve seen him do for a while,” Taylor said of Bruesewitz’s play. “He’s always hustling, he’s always working hard. That’s all you can really ask for in Mike — a kind of catalyst for our team, a poster boy for scrapping and running around and getting hustle plays.”
Bruesewitz said he learned the tricks of an energetic and scrappy style of play by playing against men of his father’s age as a sixth and seventh grader. Against those men, he was told by his dad not to expect the ball much and to concentrate on defending. And if he ever expected to score, he’d have to rebound.
“I learned that way,” he said. “You learn a lot of tricks from old guys; old guys are really crafty. You learn how to use your butt, how to use your hips, how to push off without getting called for push offs, how to use your beer belly.”
But three days later, Bruesewitz offered a little bit of everything for Wisconsin against Northwestern at the Kohl Center. In a first half filled with plenty of offense, Bruesewitz helped keep Wisconsin in the game by scoring 12 points and dishing out three assists.
With the game tied at 32-32 in the final minute, Bruesewitz swung his arm across the bottom of the rim to lay one in between two defenders and give UW a two-point advantage.
Northwestern carried the ball back down with time still remaining. Its star forward John Shurna held the ball, but Bruesewitz knocked the ball loose, preventing Shurna from getting a shot off in time.
The Badgers went into the locker room with the lead and began the second half on a 21-8 scoring run that the Wildcats never recovered from.
“Mike kept us in the game without a doubt (in the first half),” forward Ryan Evans said. “ … Just hitting threes, hitting shots, being the energizer, it was just huge for us in the first half.”
Bruesewitz finished that evening with 13 points on 5-of-10 shooting, including 2-of-5 from the field, and he complemented that with five rebounds, four assists, one block and two steals.
Though he may be known as a scrapper, Bruesewitz’s teammates know he can fill a different role when needed. And right now, he’s got UW feeling good in an uncharacteristic season.
“If his shot’s not there he’s going to pass, he’s going to make hard cuts, set good screens, things like that, get on the glass, get on the floor,” Berggren said. “When it does present itself, he’s going to knock down some big shots. He’s got a great attitude.”