The Wisconsin men’s basketball team (15-7, 9-6 Big Ten) are nearing the home stretch of their regular season, but making it into postseason play won’t be easy for the Badgers.
Losers in five of their last 10 contests, Wisconsin has lacked consistency on both ends of the floor and has yet to play a complete 40-minute game against higher caliber opponents.
Four of the Badgers’ final five opponents have a winning record in the Big Ten, arguably the nation’s toughest conference. That began with Wisconsin welcoming the 11th ranked Iowa Hawkeyes (15-6, 9-6) to Madison on Feb 18.
The Hawkeyes have National Player of Year front-runner Luka Garza, a 6-foot-11 center who can do it all offensively.
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Like many games already this season, the Badgers opened the game ice cold from the field, making only four of their first 30 attempts from the floor. Trailing by nine after the first half, Iowa opened up a 16 point lead early in the second half and it appeared like the Hawkeyes would run away with a win.
To their credit, Wisconsin fought back behind a needed scoring outburst from Brad Davison, who finished with 15 points on five threes. The Badgers whittled the lead down to just four with nine minutes to play, but they could draw no closer as the Hawkeyes stayed hot from beyond the arc and Garza remained a force from everywhere. Iowa would win comfortably, 77-62.
Along with the big scoring contribution from Davison, senior big man Micah Potter poured in 23 points and snagged 11 rebounds off the bench. Wisconsin struggled to contain Garza, who scored 30 points while Iowa was a scorching 12-19 on 3-pointers.
Next, Wisconsin traveled to Evanston Feb. 21 to take on a reeling Northwestern team (6-13, 3-13) that had dropped their last 13 games. The Badgers had last defeated Northwestern 68-52 on Jan. 20 behind 14 points from sophomore forward Tyler Wahl and 12 from senior guard D’Mitrik Trice. The win was one of few in Big Ten play where the Badgers led wire to wire and emerged victorious by a comfortable margin.
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In what was similar to their convincing home wins against Northwestern, Wisconsin played one their best all-around games in a while, dominating the Wildcats for 40 minutes en route to a 68-51 victory. The Badgers led 34-24 at halftime and never looked back as five players scored in double figures with Potter leading the way with 19 points off the bench.
The most promising aspect of the game was how connected and comfortable the Badgers appeared — a cohesiveness they have often lacked in conference play. Finding a way to bottle up this improved play will be key for Wisconsin down the stretch and into the postseason.
Wisconsin gets almost a week off to prepare for No. 5 Illinois (16-5, 12-3) — a team that dominated Wisconsin in their last meeting. Trice was the lone bright spot for the Badgers, scoring 22 points in an otherwise uninspiring overall performance.
The Badgers will have their hands full with the Illini, as stars Kofi Cockburn and Ayo Dosunmu were more than impressive in their first meeting. Cockburn, an imposing center, recorded 23 points and 12 rebounds while athletic guard Dosunmu did it all with a 23 point, 12 rebound and 12 assist triple-double.
Illinois has tons of offensive firepower, so getting off to a fast start will be crucial for the Badgers to have a chance to win. The Badgers trailed by 13 at halftime in their previous contest, but they played the Illini even in the second period, meaning Wisconsin is more than capable of competing with Illinois.
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Containing Cockburn and Dosunmu is a tall order. The Badgers may need to explore adjusting to how they defend the dynamic duo. This could be double-teaming Cockburn down low and taking chances with Illinois roll players getting more open shots. As for Dosunmu, helping on defense early and forcing him to take tough, contested shots will prove the key to slowing down the Illini attack.
Wisconsin rounds out their regular season the first week of March, with a road game against Purdue and a rematch with Iowa in Iowa City. Both teams are currently ahead of the Badgers in the Big Ten standings, so these games will have seeding implications for both the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments.
Purdue fits the mold of the many other elite Big Ten teams in the way they have a star at the center spot. Big man Trevion Williams is a force down low and will provide a challenge for a Badger defense which has struggled stopping interior foes. The Boilermakers surround Williams with a bevy of capable offensive players.
To come out victorious against both Purdue and Iowa, Wisconsin must play a complete 40-minute game. The Badgers need to run fluid and efficient offense from the jump, defend with classic Wisconsin tenacity and keep both teams’ star big men from exploding offensively.
Like in the recent win over Northwestern, Wisconsin should look to find balanced scoring — as they are much tougher to defend when four or more players score in double figures.
Perhaps most importantly, the Badgers need to get off to solid starts in games. Elite teams in the NCAA tournament will not let the Badgers hang around if they fall behind early.