The Badgers have their title. Now they want to keep it all to themselves.
A full game up on second-place Purdue entering the final weekend of Big Ten play, all Wisconsin needs to do to clinch an outright league championship and the top seed in next week?s conference tournament is to beat last place Northwestern.
?We want this to ourselves,? forward Brian Butch said. ?We don?t want to share it. We have some work still to do.?
On paper, it looks to be a total mismatch. First place against last place. Fifteen conference wins versus just one. Tenth-ranked nationally opposed to 11th-ranked in the Big Ten.
But the wild card in the matchup is the game?s venue.
Despite the fact that Northwestern?s Welsh-Ryan Arena seats just over 8,000 and a strong contingent of Wisconsin fans will likely make the short drive to the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Ill., the Badgers always seem to have a tough go of it playing in the place that reminds some players of a high school gym.
Since 2001, when Bo Ryan took over as head coach, Wisconsin is 2-3 against Northwestern in Evanston. Even in UW?s most recent visit, a mid-January 56-50 victory for the Badgers last season, Northwestern played Wisconsin tough.
?I don?t know why it is,? guard Jason Bohannon said. ?We got the win there last year, but it was a tough win.
?It?s a small arena, but a lot of us have played in small arenas in high school. ? I don?t know what it is ? Northwestern just has that much more momentum at home, I guess.?
As much of a factor in UW?s troubles with Northwestern over the years in Welsh-Ryan is the Wildcats? 1-3-1 zone defense and Princeton-style offense that emphasizes ball control and back cuts for easy baskets.
More complicated for the Badgers is the fact that they only have two days to prepare for the Wildcats and all the quirks they present.
?You?d like to have more time to prepare for a team like Northwestern, but that?s the way it is,? Ryan said after the team?s Thursday practice. ?I thought with as quick a turnaround (between games) ? the scout team gave us a pretty good look here today.?
Northwestern extends the zone out and makes the opposing offenses do things they aren?t used to and otherwise normally don?t do. Unlike the more traditional zone defenses ? the 2-3 and 3-2 varieties ? the Northwestern defense isn?t as easy to make cross-court skip passes to open shooters against.
?They force passes you?re not used to making,? Bohannon said. ?It?s always diagonal passes that are the dangerous ones, and they force those a little more than passes from guard to guard.?
In the teams? first meeting of the season ? a 62-50 Wisconsin win Jan. 19 ? the Badgers had trouble staying patient and dissecting the Northwestern defense. Wisconsin turned the ball over 15 times against the zone and only had 13 assists for the game. The UW guards were particularly poor at keeping the ball safe, as Bohannon, Michael Flowers and Trevon Hughes each committed three turnovers.
If Wisconsin doesn?t beat itself with turnovers, its defense should be stingy enough to keep Northwestern at arms? length.
Over the last two weeks, the Badgers have played their best defense of the season, holding Ohio State, Michigan State and Penn State to 53, 42 and 41 points, respectively.
Against Penn State, Wisconsin limited the Nittany Lions to 0.72 points per possession, a number Ryan said was one of the best ever for any of his teams.
?As the season goes on, I think [the defense] has a chance to improve even more, which is scary,? UW assistant coach Howard Moore said. ?We?re doing a good job holding teams out of what they like to do ? keeping people out of their comfort zone. It?s been a collective thing.?