Once again rolling, the Wisconsin Badgers find themselves situated to finally make a statement in the Big Ten as the second half of conference play nears.
Riding a four-game win streak, the No. 25 Badgers (16-5, 5-3) will host the No. 16 Indiana Hoosiers (16-4, 4-4) Thursday night at the Kohl Center. Wisconsin most recently dispatched Illinois on the road Sunday afternoon in a 67-63 win that came four days after the Badgers waxed Northwestern at home 77-57.
The Badgers seem to be hitting their stride while the Hoosiers have dropped three of their last four games. Indiana snapped a three-game losing skid Sunday in a 73-54 win over a Penn State team mourning the loss of long-time football coach Joe Paterno, who passed away earlier that morning.
Aside from the win-loss column, though, the two teams stand apart in their philosophical approaches. While the Hoosiers stand as the Big Ten’s top offense, scoring 79.8 points per game, the Badgers are the conference’s best defensive team, allowing only 49.6 points per game. The second-best defensive team is Ohio State, which still stands more than six points behind at 56.0 points per game.
“It seems like there’s a lot of the same players,” UW head coach Bo Ryan said of IU’s roster. “It seems like they’re, I mean, they’ve been there. They’ve had the experience. They’ve been to every Big Ten arena, 90 percent of them.”
After several horrendous shooting efforts early in the conference slate, Wisconsin has been fortunate to ride the improved play of preseason All-American point guard Jordan Taylor, who has boosted his scoring average to 14.1 points per game after diminished totals earlier this season. Taylor began January by scoring 28 points in Wisconsin’s 63-60 overtime loss to Michigan State Jan. 3 and hasn’t scored less than 12 in a game since.
After shooting 51.1 percent from the field in the Big Ten opener against Nebraska, Wisconsin failed to hit 40 percent in each of its next three games — all losses. Since then, the Badgers have shot at least 44.4 percent in three of their last four games.
“It always looks better when shots are going down,” Taylor said. “Obviously, I haven’t been shooting the ball as well as last year if you want to compare it, but for me, I’m just trying to never hang my head, never get too low or too high. It’s a constant grind, and you just rely on your teammates.”
Specifically, the Badgers have seen improved efforts from forwards Jared Berggren and Ryan Evans, who are second and third in scoring with 11.0 and 9.7 points per game, respectively. The frontcourt duo also leads Wisconsin in rebounding, with Evans pulling down 6.6 and Berggren grabbing 5.0. Forward Mike Bruesewitz also averages 5.0 rebounds per game, and his scoring numbers have risen to 6.5 points per game after he also endured some shooting struggles earlier in the season.
“I think a lot of guys spent a lot of time in the gym, myself included,” Bruesewitz said. “I think everybody has done that. There have been a lot of extra hours after practice, before practice.”
“Also we’re moving quite a bit better without the basketball. We’re making good cuts and getting a little bit more open shots, and that’s why they are falling.”
To keep pace with the Hoosiers, Taylor and the Badgers’ guards must counteract Indiana’s backcourt duo of Verdell Jones III and Jordan Hulls. With stud freshman forward Cody Zeller leading the team in scoring (15.1 points per game), Jones III and Hulls lead Indiana in assists with 3.5 and 3.4 per game, respectively.
Hulls is also the Hoosiers’ top outside shooting threat, having made 45 of 91 3-point attempts (49.5 percent) this season. Indiana ranks first in the Big Ten in 3-point shooting at 44.9 percent, while Wisconsin has held opponents to a conference-best 26.4 shooting clip from outside.
“Every team plays a little bit differently,” Ryan said. “Teams have different make-ups: taller, shorter, quicker, so each game is an entity to itself. But Jordan is always going to try to find a way to make the team successful, and that’s the way all players should be. Some just are a little more effective at it than others.”
Wisconsin and Indiana tip off at 8:00 p.m. on ESPN2 and ESPN3. You watch the Badgers and Hoosiers on ESPN3 here - http://es.pn/cbb-iub-uw.