Having survived an 11-game stretch with a 7-4 record, a stretch that included a daunting seven ranked teams, Wisconsin's five-game closing stretch involved the four bottom dwellers in the loaded Big Ten.
Even knowing that, there wasn't any different message given in the visiting team's locker room other than this was just the next game on the schedule.
"We knew we had to come in and make a statement from the beginning," said guard Traevon Jackson. "This was a big game for us."
Nineteenth-ranked Wisconsin followed protocol on Wednesday night, as its dominant wire-to-wire 69-41 victory over Northwestern at Welsh-Ryan Arena might suggest.
Five players scored at least eight points, including 12 points and eight rebounds each from Jared Berggren and Ben Brust, as Wisconsin (19-8, 10-4 Big Ten) shot 46.0 percent from the floor to clinch a winning conference record for the 13th straight season, the second-longest streak among the six major conferences.
Freshman Sam Dekker scored 10 on 4-for-5 shooting while Frank Kaminsky and Jackson added eight, as Wisconsin earned its biggest road victory of the season by whipping and throttling Northwestern (13-14, 4-10) for the sixth straight time. It was a game that was over quickly, much to the delight of the 7,011 fans that were mostly decked in red.
In much the same dominance Wisconsin exerted in the first half Sunday against Ohio State, unleashing an 18-0 run to bury the Buckeyes, the Badgers' 9-0 start to open the game set the tone for what was a one-sided affair.
"I said it in the huddle we got to make sure we step on their throats early, can't let them hang around," said senior Mike Bruesewitz. "If we do, it was going to be a dog fight."
With the Wildcats not having any player over 6-8 in its starting lineup, Wisconsin's height advantage allowed Berggren to score eight of UW's 28 points in the paint and the Badgers to get 16 second-chance points off 15 offensive rebounds. Jackson said the emphasis from the start was to attack the post, and his five assists to one turnover was part of the offense's catalyst.
"This was a big game to get everybody the ball and continue to give guys looks, just to keep their confidence up," said Jackson, who has nine assists to three turnovers the last two games. "I kept telling guys to keep being aggressive."
The work on the glass echoed that physicality, outrebounded Northwestern 47-22 overall, including a 23-8 margin in the first half. In the first 20 minutes, Wisconsin held the Wildcats without a single second-chance point or basket in the paint.
"We set the tone defensively early by running them off the 3-point line and making them take tough 2-point jumpers and not letting them get any back door (cuts)," said Bruesewitz, as Wisconsin allowed just six points in the paint and two buckets off backdoor courts overall. "They got a couple, but we held them in check for the most part. That was the biggest thing: our ability to lock them up and not get easy threes and easy buckets."
The results showed. Other than Northwestern hitting 8 of 24 3-pointers, Northwestern managed only six points in the paint and five second-chance opportunities, resulting in a measly two points.
"We make teams defend us for long times and make them play hard defense," said Berggren. "If we can get them off the glass and make them do it again, it can be discouraging for teams."
Holding its 10th conference team to 60 points or less, Wisconsin neutralized Northwestern's coveted Princeton offense and its back cuts to the basket by keeping guys in front and blocking off the baseline.
Wisconsin unofficially made three of its five steals off the play; a reason why the Wildcats made only four field goals and scored 12 points in the first half, a season low for a UW opponent this season.
"We understand that they've got some guys missing but when you prepare, you prepare for a system," said UW coach Bo Ryan. "Defensively we had to keep trying to stay to our rules … I thought we kept making them work for good looks."
"What killed us was the backboards," said Northwestern sophomore Dave Sobolewski. "Fifteen offensive rebounds, it seemed like they scored every time."
They didn't, it just seemed that way with Wisconsin averaging over 1.2 points per possession and never letting the foot off the gas pedal.
"If we stick to our rules and stay disciplined," said Berggren, "this is a team that's capable of getting teams problems."