Sandwiched between games against two 2012 NCAA Tournament qualifiers — California Sunday and in-state rival Marquette Saturday — it may be easy for Wisconsin men’s basketball fans to overlook a Tuesday matchup with Nebraska-Omaha.
But after taking down the Golden Bears in dominating 81-56 fashion, the Badgers (5-3) matchup with the Mavericks (2-7) at the Kohl Center is the final opportunity for any fine-tuning before they travel to Milwaukee Saturday.
While the Summit League opponent may not boast the talent of the Big East’s Golden Eagles, guard and junior college transfer Justin Simmons has major-conference talent. The Milwaukee native leads UNO with 12.1 points per game and can take over on offense, according to UW assistant Lamont Paris.
“[He’s] a perimeter player that can get his shot off at any point; sometimes there’s not a lot you can do about the shots that he takes except be there, be close, get a hand in his face,” Paris said. “… Just got to try to consistently make him take those tough shots.”
Aiding Simmons in directing Nebraska-Omaha’s offense is 6-foot-8 forward John Karhoff, a post and perimeter threat who ranks second on the team with 11.3 points per game. Though he is the Mavericks’ second-leading rebounder (3.7 per game) and has yet to fire a three-point attempt through nine games, he can score from outside the paint.
Sinking just more than 45 percent of his shots from the floor, the junior will challenge the likes of forwards Ryan Evans and Jared Berggren with his athleticism around the hoop.
“He wants to work hard to catch it on the post and around the box, and if he doesn’t, he’s not locked in to just picking a post move,” Paris said. “He can face up, put the ball on the floor a little bit, shoot it. But I think he knows where his bread and butter is — around the basket.”
After dropping two of their last three games, the win over Cal marked one of the Badgers’ stronger performances this season — especially on the defensive end. With only one 2012 tournament team left on the schedule before Big Ten play begins, UW’s performance Sunday represented a sign of growth in the young season.
Wisconsin shot better than 50 percent from the floor while holding its Pac-12 opponent to 38.3 percent shooting, Tuesday’s game will indicate if the victory was a true sign of sustained growth.
“We all came in with a collective focus that this was a must-win; our backs were up against the wall and we needed the win,” Evans said. “I think it was really a team focus that we were moving the ball around and we were all very determined to win that game.”
Continuing to provide electricity off the bench as the Badgers develop an offensive identity is freshman forward Sam Dekker. The Wisconsin former prep star said he is growing increasingly comfortable in Bo Ryan’s swing offense and attacked the basket with a vengeance against the Golden Bears.
If he shows such aggressiveness again against the Mavericks, he may run into UNO’s primary defensive stopper in forward Matt Hagerbaumer. Hagerbaumer has a team-leading 12 blocks through nine games and has what Paris called a Big Ten-like frame, bringing a physical presence to the Kohl Center hardwood.
Tuesday night will not provide the signature win Wisconsin still lacks last year, but it may still prove an important test for where this team stands as conference play draws nearer. When asked about how UW can follow up its win Sunday with similar success, Dekker did not mince words.
“I think just the mental mindset of coming into the game and being ready to play and wanting to smash the team in the mouth,” Dekker said.