Bench Play Needs a Boost

Wisconsin's starting five is responsible for setting the tone from the opening tip, but the Badgers' bench is responsible for keeping the energy at a high level. Matching up tonight with Iowa, whose bench torched the Badgers in their first meeting, Wisconsin's reserves they need to give more.

IOWA CITY, IA – If NASCAR aficionado Ben Brust had a racing term to define the Wisconsin bench this season, he would label the group ‘the pit crew.' Define how that crew is performing and the definition varies from a well oiled machine to one that only put on three new tires and forgot to screw on the gas cap.

"Every game presents a new challenge," Brust said. "In anything you do, you have to keep plugging away. In school, whether you get a bad grade or a good grade, or whether or not you are shooting well, you have to keep working through it.

"Every challenge starts by doing the right things in practice. If you do what you are supposed to do before the game. It's going to help when you go into the game."

Bench production has been something Wisconsin, along with many other teams around college basketball, try to rely on for success. In the 2008 run to the Sweet 16, Jason Bohannon was the conference's Sixth Man of the Year after averaging 26.2 minutes and 8.4 points off the bench. In last year's run to Sweet 16, Mike Bruesewitz and Ryan Evans each played all 34 games, providing the needed spark. Bench production usually leads to starting production the following season, but it also leaves a void in the backend of the rotation. With Wisconsin losing six seniors from last year, the Badgers have had to rely on youth like Brust and Frank Kaminsky playing their first full season and a blend of depth with senior Rob Wilson. Those three will be the main bench players counted on again when No.16 Wisconsin plays against Iowa at Carver Hawkeye Arena tonight.

"Coming on off the bench, I feel you have to bring even more energy to match the players on the court," said Wilson, who is averaging 2.3 points per game. "They have already brought intensity having been starters. You have to max that from the word ‘go.'"

Much like Wisconsin's shooting this season, the bench has been inconsistent, especially as the season gruels along. Through the first 14 games, the bench averaged 19.1 points per game, including a season-high 30 points against UNLV. Through the last five games, the bench has averaged just 5.7 points.

"You would like to get production out of your bench each and every game, but sometimes it doesn't work that way," said assistant coach Gary Close. "Hopefully if they aren't scoring, they are doing other things like rebounding or defending to help the team. You can come off the bench and not score and still be effective.

"Each year is a little different and we probably were a little deeper last year. You just have to go with the flow, so to speak, as to what are the best combinations to give us the best chance to win."

In the two team's last meeting, a seven-point Iowa win at the Kohl Center Dec.31, Wisconsin's bench scored 16 points – its third highest point total of the conference season – but didn't do the little things. The Badgers surrendered 14 fast-break points, their second-worst mark this season, and most of the damage was caused by the Hawkeyes' bench.

Iowa got 37 points (or 50.7 percent of its points) from its bench, the worst UW has given up all season, as freshman Aaron White scored a game-high 18 points and senior Bryce Cartwright added 17, as Iowa's bench shot 58.3 percent.

Iowa might have to play without Cartwright, who has missed the last two games after suffering a high-ankle sprain in practice on Feb. 11. UW's coach Bo Ryan said his team's strategy will remain the same regardless of Cartwright's availability, which likely will be firming up transition defense and limiting the production from Iowa's bench.

Although Wright and Cartwright have developed into the starting lineup, the Hawkeyes are still packing a punch from the pine, as sophomore Melsahn Basabe, who has come off the bench the last six games after starting the first 21 games, scored 13 points in Sunday's 12-point win over No.18 Indiana.

If Cartwright can't play, the Hawkeyes will rely even more on senior guard Matt Gatens, the team's leading scorer at 14.8 points per game, who is one of three Hawkeyes that average double figures along with guard Roy Devyn Marble (11.1 points) and White (10.4).

If UW wants to neutralize that, it'll need help from Brust, the onetime Iowa commit who ranks fifth among Big Ten reserves in scoring. Brust has showed he can score – his 7-for-7 3-point shooting performance against UNLV tied a conference record for most threes without a miss – but in the 17 games since his career-high 25 points, Brust has scored 10 or more points just three times, held scoreless in three of the last five games and shot 21.4 percent (3 of 14) over that stretch.

"For the most part, they aren't bad shots," said Ryan. "There are some other guys in the league and the country struggling, too. Shooting is a funny thing. If you are on the court and you are open, you've got to take them. He could get hot. It'd be nice if he did."

Brust showed some life Sunday, chipping in with six points and a perimeter jumper in the first half that was part of a stretch where Wisconsin hit a 3-pointer on five consecutive possessions, including three in a row by guard Josh Gasser, in a 10-point win over Penn State.

That's the funny thing about basketball, according to Brust. All it takes is one player to ignite a team, or a pit crew.

"I think we all kind of fed off that," said Brust. "The best part about this game is you always have more chances to make you right. I think we're going to keep cruising away."


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