It may not start with the sexiest of opponents, but the Wisconsin men’s basketball team is about to embark on its most critical stretch of the season, one that will determine its positioning in the postseason.
With a victory over Nebraska (13-14, 4-10 Big Ten) at the Kohl Center Tuesday night – a game that kicks off a four-game stretch to close out the regular season – the Badgers will move into a tie for second place with Michigan State. Though Indiana still has a firm two-game grasp on the conference title race, Wisconsin’s (19-8, 10-4 Big Ten) distant chance at winning its first Big Ten crown since 2008 can only stay alive with a win against the Cornhuskers.
Reflecting on the first matchup with Nebraska this season – an ugly 47-41 road win for UW in its second Big Ten game of the year – serves as a reminder of the growth this team has made to emerge with only four losses in conference play thus far. When rekindling memories of that narrow Jan. 6 victory in Lincoln, players and coaches agreed the offense had yet to find its groove.
“Since our first game versus Nebraska we’ve made huge strides offensively,” fifth-year senior forward Ryan Evans said. “At that time we were kind of getting our defensive chemistry together. I think the first couple games in the Big Ten conference we won solely off of defense.”
Nebraska, in its first year under head coach Tim Miles, sits 10th in the conference standings but has provided a genuine scare to the likes of Michigan State and Ohio State. After weathering a grueling Big Ten schedule littered with nationally-ranked opponents, the Huskers must now embrace their role as spoilers.
The success they have found has come courtesy of the same principles that have defined Wisconsin basketball under head coach Bo Ryan – offensive efficiency and stingy defense.
“They’re going to play almost identical defensively to how we do in terms of playing percentages, forcing in the tough looks, trying to take away your strikes,” UW associate head coach Greg Gard said. “We’ll be pretty efficient offensively where they waste possessions, those types of things. So you’re going to have to execute, beat them, they’re not going to hand you anything.”
Although Nebraska averages just 59 points per game, the lowest in the Big Ten, Miles’ squad is not without its offensive threats. A pair of veteran guards, Dylan Talley and Ray Gallegos, conducts the Huskers’ offense with 14 and 12.5 points per game, respectively. While each shoots less than 37 percent from the field, Gard said both are capable of gaining confidence and igniting Nebraska’s offense on any given day.
But it is not as if the Husker offense is so one-dimensional that it is anemic if the shots aren’t falling for Talley and Gallegos. Nebraska has a rising star in 6-foot-6-inch swingman Shavon Shields, who ranks fourth on the team with 8.3 points per and also pulls down 5.1 rebounds per game.
“Those guys shoot it, when they get hot, as well as anybody in the league,” Gard said. “They shoot it like Brandon Paul and [D.J.] Richardson at Illinois, you don’t want to get in a ‘horse’ contest with them.”
Never was that potential clearer than in a four-point home win for Nebraska over Iowa Saturday, when Talley sunk a late three-pointer to cap a comeback in which the Huskers came back from a 16-point hole at halftime.
Taking the Kohl Center floor for the second-to-last time this season will be a Wisconsin team that has buried its last two opponents – Northwestern and Ohio State – by a combined 51 points.
After taking part in a series of low-scoring slugfests, the Badgers have displayed renewed offensive energy and netted at least 65 points in five of their last six games. The challenge for UW, then, lies in not reverting to its early Big Ten-season form, when defense compensated for lasting struggles shooting the ball.
“That [first matchup with Nebraska] kind of showed what the league was going to be like – that wasn’t our only grinder of a game,” senior forward Mike Bruesewitz said, who sported a new hairstyle Sunday that drew comparisons to that of Kramer from ”Seinfeld.” “We figured out we can win these types of games, we just got to make sure we stick to our rules defensively and make plays when we need to.”
As the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments creep closer, Wisconsin takes the hardwood with much different stakes hanging in the balance than Nebraska has. And for a Cornhuskers team that Gard said has found ways to “muddy things up” all year, the motivation comes with the chance to bring an abrupt end to UW’s Big Ten title hopes.
“We’ve put ourselves in a pretty good position right now, besides some losses that we wish we didn’t have,” freshman forward Sam Dekker said. “We got to take [Nebraska] out hopefully and that’ll drive us into the next game.”