It was no different Saturday afternoon when Wisconsin (10-0) found itself locked in a physical battle with in-state rival Marquette (5-4) at the Kohl Center.
No matter how the season has gone for Marquette and Wisconsin before they meet, the I-94 rivalry game can be depended on to be a dogfight as the Badgers’ 6-6 record against the Golden Eagles under Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan would suggest.
“You can look at any rivalry and it’s always going to be a possession game,” Marquette head coach Buzz Williams said. “Stylistically how we play and how they play is always going to balance out and it always comes down to loose balls and first to the floor and 50-50 balls and offensive rebounds, put backs and-ones. It boils down to ‘how tough are you?’”
When looking for a model of toughness, Wisconsin’s players need look no further than their four-year starter and guard battling back from ACL surgery Josh Gasser.
Ryan agreed when asked about where his team’s toughness started in its matchup with Marquette answering simply “Josh Gasser.”
“The guys saw what he went through last year and you can’t tell me there isn’t a guy in that locker room that didn’t take notice of the hours and the discipline that Josh put in,” Ryan said. “We got some other guys out there that have a lot of grit, but you have to start somewhere and that’s where it starts.”
The combination of physicality and the new defensive rule implemented by the NCAA this year made for a lot of foul calls and consequently foul trouble for both teams.
“We’re working at it,” Gasser said of adjusting to the new rules. “Some games are different than others. You just have play with the way it’s going. We never really used our hands on defense, coach teaches it that way … You just have to really concentrate sometimes and stick to what we do.”
By the time 10 minutes had gone by in the first half, a total of 12 fouls had been called, seven of which went on Marquette, putting Wisconsin in the bonus with still 10 minutes to play in the opening half.
Things started to get dicey for the Badgers when both of their big men, Nigel Hayes and Frank Kaminsky, picked up their second personal fouls within six seconds of each other. This forced Ryan to sub in junior forward Evan Anderson and fifth year senior forward Zach Bohannon, who had played a combined total of just five minutes coming into Saturday’s game.
“I thought Evan and Zach did a great job of not letting it slip away,” Ryan said. “We were not in a hole when we were down those last three or four minutes. We were hanging tough.”
But Anderson’s opportunity was short lived as he picked up three fouls in more than two minutes of play which put him back on the bench in favor of Bohannon.
Wisconsin was able to limit their foul calls in the second half picking up just six, while penalties continued to be a problem for the Golden Eagles in the second half, getting called for 13 fouls with two players, Jake Thomas and Juan Anderson, fouling out.
As time began to wind down in the second half, the intensity ratcheted up resulting in a quicker tempo and several loose balls. With hustle plays highlighted by Gasser and Traevon Jackson, Wisconsin gained the edge.
“50-50 balls are what we pride ourselves on and what we always want to get,” Gasser said. “Loose balls and even rebounds we consider 50-50 balls, so we want to come up with most of those. Just those plays can really turn the tide of a game and it was good that we got a few of those and then limited theirs. I think that was a big point to the game.”
The Badgers were able to weather their foul trouble and win the battle of toughness with Marquette, giving them their 10th-straight win of the season in a game that lived up to the billing of the I-94 rivalry.
“That’s why they’re 94-7 in November and December. They’re not beating themselves, you have to beat them,” Williams said. “The last two years, what was the difference? You could say it was our will. You could say today it was their will. It wasn’t tactical.”