In its last 20 meetings, the Wisconsin men’s basketball team has held a commanding 14-6 advantage over Iowa. But three of those six losses have come over the past two seasons as the Badgers have not taken down the Hawkeyes in nearly two years.
So what is it about Iowa (14-8, 3-6 Big Ten), a program that has not landed in the NCAA tournament since 2006, that has given Wisconsin (15-7, 6-3) such unrelenting trouble? It starts with a roster that makes the most of their talent, utilizing a style of play reminiscent of the Badgers themselves.
“A thing they do well is they match our intensity,” freshman forward Sam Dekker said. “A lot of times we’re the team that comes out and we hit them in the mouth right away, and just play harder than them, and they match it. And the past three times they’ve played harder than us and they’ve gotten the best of us.”
Wednesday night’s rematch at the Kohl Center — when Wisconsin will try to bring that three-game losing streak to a close — will be critical as the Badgers try to stay in the Big Ten title race. Halfway through a brutally tough conference season, Iowa serves as the final prep for an immensely talented Michigan team Saturday, one of four teams that sit ahead of UW in the conference standings.
Though the Badgers would need near-perfection over their final nine conference games to capture their first Big Ten regular season crown since 2008, a victory over the pesky Hawkeyes would hand the home team its first pair of consecutive wins in nearly three weeks.
UW assistant coach Gary Close says the Hawkeyes are a deceptively talented team, one lost in the mix of a Big Ten that currently boasts five ranked teams.
Their top talent arrives in sophomore forward Aaron White, a name that may be familiar to Badger fans after he posted 17 points and made it to the free throw line 15 times in a 70-66 Iowa win at Carver-Hawkeye Arena Jan. 19. His name may not yet have secured a spot in the vocabulary of Big Ten basketball fans, but his 13.9 points and six rebounds per game — both team highs — will soon earn him such a place.
“Aaron White’s one of the top players in the league,” said Close, who spent 13 years as an assistant coach in Iowa City from 1986-99. “Everybody in this league would love to have him. If he were playing for Michigan or Michigan State or Indiana, the whole country would know about him … he’s a big-time player.”
As difficult a task as it will be to control the 6-foot-8 White, defense has generally not been the issue for this Badgers team.
Instead, it has been ice-cold shooting that has cost Wisconsin in tight losses. Never were those shooting woes more apparent than when the Badgers found themselves in a 16-point hole at halftime after shooting 23.1 percent in the first half in the first meeting with the Hawkeyes this year.
That began a stretch of several poor shooting performances before UW appeared to regain its rhythm in a six-point road victory over Illinois Sunday, when it finished the game shooting 42.9 percent.
“I think that kind of got us out of [the shooting slump], getting over the hump there on the offensive end and getting to the line,” Dekker said of the win over Illinois. “Those are just things we need to do to get confident, get us going and carry that into the next few games.”
Anchoring that improved offensive effort at Illinois was sophomore forward Frank Kaminsky, who netted a career-high 19 points in his second game back after missing three games with an eye injury, including the loss to Iowa earlier this season. He watched much of that game with his mom and sister — who were in town for his sister’s birthday — from the lobby of a Madison hotel where he admits he drew some startling looks as he yelled at the TV.
“It was frustrating to watch, and there’s things we could have done in that game to win the game I think,” Kaminsky said. “They were right there at the end to win the game, just a couple dumb mistakes away from victory.”
The Badgers will need all the offensive help they can get from an Iowa squad that, according to Close, is one of the deepest in the Big Ten and carries nine players who average at least 15 minutes per game on the floor.
The duo of freshman Mike Gesell and junior Roy Debyn Marble lead a backcourt with 8.9 and 13.4 points per game, respectively. Athletic big man Melsahn Basabe takes pressure off of White in the paint when he comes off the bench with 7.4 points and 4.5 boards per game.
Coaches and players understand Wednesday night is a pit stop for the Badgers at the midway point of a taxing Big Ten season, a chance to refuel and gather the momentum for a late-season run.
“We’ve just got to refocus, bring that energy again,” Dekker said. “I think a couple of those losses were eye-openers for us because we dug ourselves in another hole, and we’ve got to get out of that. We don’t want to drop any further in the standings than we already are.”