Another Big Ten Grind

The Big Ten has always proved to be one of the toughest conferences in college basketball, a trait that is holding its weight this season. With 12 competitive teams from top to bottom capable of winning any night, Wisconsin knows it needs to start defending its home court if it wants to succeed.

MADISON - In order to win at Mackey Arena, senior Rob Wilson said a team has to play hard, play smart and play together. Even that sometimes isn't enough, just ask the University of Wisconsin.

The Badgers have won a total of five conference championship in four of Bo Ryan's 11 seasons at Wisconsin, and have done so without breaking through with a victory in central Indiana.

Wisconsin played Purdue in three of its four championship seasons and lost by 18, two and four. The last time Wisconsin won at Purdue and won a conference championship, one has to go back to that magical 1941 season when the Badgers won 43-42, part of a 15-game winning streak that ended with the school's only national championship. Needless to say, it's always been tough to win on the road in the Big Ten.

"A lot of really good Badgers teams haven't won at Purdue, so to be able to go in there and get a win, especially to bounce back from a three-game losing streak in such a tough environment, says a lot about our team," said senior guard Jordan Taylor. "It says a lot about the personality of our team that even with our backs against the wall, we can respond to things."

It's an unexpected win that moves Wisconsin (13-5, 2-3) into seventh place in the Big Ten heading into the weekend and a chance to continue momentum when it hosts last-place Nebraska (9-7, 1-4) Sunday at the Kohl Center.

The last time the Badgers met Nebraska (a 64-40 win at Lincoln Dec. 27), Wisconsin opened the conference season shooting 51.1 percent from the floor – the third straight game UW made over half its shots - and 52.4 from the three-point range. The Badgers returned to that pinpoint accuracy Thursday, shooting 47.5 percent (19-of-40), 45 percent (9-of-20) from three-point range and 83.3 percent (20-of-24) from the free-throw line.

Problem was Wisconsin shot 33.3 percent overall and 21.4 percent from the perimeter during a three-game stretch between those Big Ten victories. With the way the conference has shook out this year, it's not surprising to see the Badgers were off to their worst start in conference since 2000-01.

"This year the conference is tough with a lot of good teams out there," said Wilson. "Any night, you never know what's going to happen. In the preseason you could say this team was going to win this game or that team was going to lose that game, but it's so wide open this year that you can't predict it."

Take the past week as a prime example. No.5 Ohio State, picked to win the conference, suffered its second loss of the conference season after Illinois junior Brandon Paul scored 43 points in a 79-74 victory Tuesday. Northwestern nearly won at No.14 Michigan in overtime before losing, 66-64, on Wednesday and while Wisconsin was winning at Purdue for only the third time in 40 years, last-place Minnesota got its first win by winning at No.8 Indiana.

And to put a cherry on top, Northwestern ended No.6 Michigan State 15-game win streak at home with a seven point win while Iowa blasted No.13 Michigan by 16 at home Saturday.

That's what you can expect from a conference that leads all conferences with nine top-65 RPI teams, has nine teams ranked in the top 70 of the Sagarin ratings and seeing Indiana and Michigan ranked in the top 20 at the same time for the first time since 1994.

"I can't look at a team and say we are going to go out and definitely beat them," said Wilson. "There are teams out there that we have done well against in past years, but these teams this year are so talented and unpredictable that it's kind of crazy."

That point got beaten in during Wisconsin's three game losing streak when it lost to Iowa at home for the first time since 2000, lost at home to Michigan State for the first time since 2001 and lost to Michigan for the first time in 10 games.

"The ones that win at home and steal a few on the road are on top," said Taylor. "We've won some on the road, which are huge, but we are still waiting for our first home win, which probably surprises a lot of people. We knew it was going to be a hard conference coming in, so we know we have to try to get as many wins as we can at home."

Recent history shows an early season hole is not a death sentence. Ohio State opened the 2009-10 season 0-2 in the Big Ten, losing at Wisconsin and Michigan, but earned a share of the regular-season title with a 14-4 record. While the Badgers' start was arguably worse, Wisconsin finds itself 2-1 on the road following its win at Purdue and now has a two-game home stand (UW hosts Northwestern Wednesday) before heading back on a the road a week from Sunday.

Even after a rare two-game home losing streak, Wisconsin is still 78-8 (.907) in the Big Ten and 160-14 (.920) overall at home under Bo Ryan, the fifth-best home win percentage since 2001-02.

That is more than enough to excite a team that did something Thursday that few Wisconsin teams can boast about.

"You never feel you are out of the race until you get mathematically eliminated," said Taylor. "We are trying to keep building on this momentum, get better every day and beat Nebraska next. It's always nice to play at home. We just have to do a better job of protecting our home court. It's something we have to try to correct, and it'll be fun trying to get back track at home."

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