“Grind ’em out dog fights.”
Those are the self-described kind of games Wisconsin redshirt senior Mike Bruesewitz loves to play in. With a collection of players similar to their starting forward, it’s no wonder the Badgers made some noise over the break in the world of college basketball.
“There are some big boys in the Big Ten, it’s a very physical conference,” Bruesewitz said. “That’s the type of stuff I like, those are the kinds of games I like to be in.”
“I don’t like the games we’re up 25. I’d much rather be in a close game where every decision matters, and every loose ball is a life or death situation.”
And that’s how the Badgers have been playing since the students on the campus of the University of Wisconsin left for winter break. The team rode an eight-game win streak to first place in Big Ten play before a disheartening loss at Iowa this past Saturday, but the team has fans optimistic for hopes of a conference title.
Every win has been tough for the Badgers, but that’s to be expected in a league that remains the undisputed best in college hoops. The team had to gut out their first two wins against undermanned, but gritty teams in Penn State, who lost its best player in Tim Frazier to an ACL tear, and Nebraska, but questions still remained.
If Wisconsin couldn’t handle their business easily against two of the projected worst teams in the conference, how would they handle the upcoming gauntlet of ranked opponents on their schedule?
It was a sentiment shared by freshman Sam Dekker.
“We feel like our production was subpar the first eight, nine games of the season,” Dekker said.
But the team rebounded in a way that surprised everyone in the world of college basketball. Blowing out No. 12 Illinois at home 74-51 in a 40-minute beating was just a glimpse of what laid ahead in Bloomington, Ind.
Sure, the Badgers and Bo Ryan had owned Assembly Hall and the Indiana Hoosiers over the past few years, but were they ready to challenge the No. 2 team in the nation in front of a raucous, sold out crowd?
Well, doubters, naysayers and non-Bolievers suddenly found Wisconsin was alone at the front of the conference, shocking the Hoosiers and their fans with stingy defense, clutch shooting and resiliency under duress in a 64-59 upset in the program’s biggest road win in history.
“I think we’ve shown flashes throughout the season that we can compete with people, but we haven’t done it too consistently,” redshirt senior center Jared Berggren said. “The Illinois game was a good stepping stone there, it’s one thing to do it at home and another to do it on the road in a hostile environment.”
“So to go into Indiana, at their place, and knock them off was a big confidence boost. Just shows what we’re capable of and we’re going to look to build off that.”
It wasn’t like the Badgers were beating the Hoosiers throughout the game–far from it. Cody Zeller and his 18 points in the first half were decimating to UW trying to establish control. But, like they have all season, Wisconsin found a way to get it done by grinding down their opponents with physical defense, limited turnovers and balanced scoring.
Berggren, the Badgers’ primary offensive option, didn’t even have his best game, as the athletic center scored just five points on 2-for-8 shooting from the field.
But the team was brought back down to earth in Carver-Hawkeye Arena this past Saturday night against an emotionally charged Iowa team. Playing in honor of the 20th anniversary of the death of Chris Street, a Hawkeye basketball standout who died in a car accident Jan. 19, 1993, the all-around performance by Iowa would have made the former player proud.
To put it lightly, the Badgers didn’t show up until the second half after being outscored 18-34 in the first half by their opponents, but it was a deficit that was too big to climb as the team fell for the first time in conference play 66-70.
But even with the let-down loss, the team has done what it always has under Ryan, progressed from week to week and gradually gained more chemistry within its ranks of players.
Ryan constantly preaches the most important thing he assesses at the end of each game: “Are we better this game than the last”? And that’s something that the Badgers certainly have shown (minus the Iowa game) during their undefeated stretch of conference play.
“We kind of were set back by injuries at the beginning of the season,” Bruesewitz said. “We came in to the season with a lot of confidence … I know I did. I had a couple freak things happen to me, then Josh [Gasser] gets hurt. Essentially, you lose two starters; at that point, that’s a big blow to any team. You lose your point guard and small forward, but the guys were great to weather the storm.”
Confidence is something Wisconsin has seemingly lacked during the season until the last four games, but it was something that was a bit expected coming into the season replacing multi-year starter Jordan Taylor, a fact amplified by Gasser’s season-ending injury.
But redshirt freshman George Marshall and sophomore Traevon Jackson have been showing signs of growth in their roles and junior Ben Brust has developed nicely into more of a well-rounded offensive threat rather than just a deadly three-point shooter.
The Badgers still have a long way to go in the Big Ten race if they hope to win a conference that currently has six of its 12 teams ranked in the Top 25.
First comes Tom Izzo’s Michigan State team Jan. 22 at the Kohl Center. Although the Spartans are adjusting to life after long-time leader and 2012 Big Ten Player of the Year Draymond Green, junior guard Keith Appling has led MSU to first place in the Big Ten at this point in the season.
After that, things don’t get much easier, as Wisconsin takes on No. 9 Minnesota at home and then both No. 11 Ohio State and No. 24 Illinois on the road (rankings as of Jan. 20).
What the cards may hold for this Badgers in conference play is unclear, but Bruesewitz should be happy because, in the Big Ten, every night is a constant grind.