Ready for Big Statement

After a rough and tumble nonconference season, Wisconsin basketball begins focus of its top goal tonight - competing for and winning a Big Ten conference championship.

MADISON - As he listened to a reporter's question inquiring on the team's status through a daunting nonconference season, senior Ryan Evans finally had some good news to share.

After injuries have limited Wisconsin's ability to find a true offensive rhythm and four losses have done equal blows to the team's psyche, Evans knows he and his teammates are ready for the grind.

"We're really coming together as a team and this is the right time to do so," he said, "going into the Big Ten season."

Evans may say Wisconsin (9-4) is ready for the Big Ten season following a 36-point victory over Samford Saturday, but playing an undersized Bulldogs team did little to clear up what has been a cloudy picture of the Badgers since junior point guard Josh Gasser went down with an injury and key contributors have struggled to find rhythm.

Mike Bruesewitz made his first start Saturday after missing two games and playing another off the bench after suffering a concussion in practice prior to the Marquette game. Evans continues to fight his way through a season-long free throw shooting slump, causing his percentage to dip to 40 percent after entering the season a career 71.1 percent free throw shooter.

And Wisconsin's youth at point guard continues to see both sophomore Traevon Jackson and redshirt freshman George Marshall split time, as neither has made a big enough leap forward to take command of the starting role.

But according to Gasser, the one thing Wisconsin's young guards have is the knowledge that every game matters, especially in Big Ten play.

Wisconsin opened the 2011-12 conference season with a 1-3 mark before winning its next six games and played the kind of basketball that earned them a spot in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season. The Badgers went 6-3 on the road in conference play – the most road conference wins since 2007-08 – but went an uncharacteristic 6-3 at home.

Entering last season, Wisconsin was 78-6 (.929) at home, but failing to defend the home court hurt Wisconsin when it fell one game out of a three-way tie for first place in the league.

"We usually struggle on the road, and that's one of the things we focused on last year: being road warriors and stealing wins from teams," said Gasser. "We did that quite a few times, but we had losses at home that really hurt us."

The M.O. for Wisconsin under Bo Ryan was always to play a tough enough nonconference schedule to get ready for conference season, and this year is no exception.

After opening the conference season tonight against Penn State (8-4) and traveling to Nebraska Sunday, the two teams picked to finish at the bottom of the 12-team conference, Wisconsin will embark on a brutal 11-game stretch that includes nine games against teams currently ranked in the top 25.

It included two games apiece against No.8 Ohio State, No.11 Illinois and No.9 Minnesota, and one game each against No.2 Michigan, No.5 Indiana and No.18 Michigan State. The other two games during that stretch are against Iowa, which beat Wisconsin twice last season.

Wisconsin closes the season at Northwestern, home against Nebraska and Purdue and road games at Michigan State and Penn State.

"That's what's so great about our league," said Gasser. "Top to bottom, it's loaded."

While one may view the dilemma of taking a young team into a brutal conference schedule a challenge, Gasser views the toughness of the league as a welcomed blessing, as a balance of power may help Wisconsin sneak up on some people if it can play its brand of basketball.

"It's a good thing that the league is tough because teams are going to be beating up on each other from top to bottom," said Gasser. "It's looking like last year where the winner of the league is going to have five, six or seven losses possibly. You look at the top teams in the league and you think they're great, but the teams at the bottom of pretty good, too."

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