So being outrebounded 116-80 in their three losses, including 36-21 in Wednesday's home surprise against Virginia, the Badgers' senior post players took it to heart.
"You definitely take it personally when you get out toughed," said senior Jared Berggren. "That's something we can usually hang our hats on in this program is playing tougher than people and just outworking guys.
"It's something that got away from us … but I liked the fight in our guys today. We played a lot harder.
More important than Wisconsin getting four players in double figures was the fact that the Badgers were relentless on the offensive and defensive glass. Not surprisingly, it resulted in a near complete performance in an 81-56 victory over California Sunday afternoon at the Kohl Center.
Wisconsin (5-3) out muscled the Bears, who were averaging 41 rebounds per game, by a 36-30 rebounding advantage and a 14-12 edge on the offensive glass. Wisconsin turned 14 offensive rebounds into 18 second-chance points and 28 points in the paint while limiting California (6-1) to seven second-chance points.
The majority of that production came from Wisconsin's senior frontcourt, as Berggren (18 points), Mike Bruesewitz (8) and Ryan Evans (13) combined for 21 of UW's rebounds and 11 of its second-chance points, as Wisconsin shot 51.7 percent (30-for-58) from the floor.
"We just played harder," said Bruesewitz, who was held to only one rebounds in last week's loss. "We got all the loose ones. That was the biggest thing. We took care of the small stuff.
"The team that plays harder generally wins."
To call a victory in early December a ‘must win' would seem premature but a loss would have put the Badgers in unfamiliar territory, being .500 or worst in the first week of December for the first time since Ryan's first season in 2001.
Maybe that's why the urgency was ratcheted up in more areas that rebounding. Wisconsin blocked five shots, held and saw its man-to-man ball pressure result in 23 California's turnovers, as Wisconsin's 16 steals were one shy of the school record of 17 set in 1988.
Against Wisconsin, the Golden Bears shot 38.3 percent and held to a season-low point production. Crabbe got his points (a game-high 25), but Cobbs was held to 11 points on 3-for-10 shooting.
"It's sticking with our rules and making them work really hard for what they got," said junior Ben Brust, who scored a season-high 22 points on 9-for-13 shooting while helping defend Cobbs. "Once they shoot it, we got to finish the play and rebound. Overall, it's making sure we're working hard, working them and making sure they have to work on both ends of the floor."
Following his quiet three-point performance on only two shots in Wednesday's loss to Virginia, Dekker found a niche early to help the Badgers build a surprising 37-24 halftime lead. The freshman notched six straight points – one on a 3-pointer and another on a three-point play off a reserve layup – that was part of a 14-0 Wisconsin run midway through the first half.
The run eventually ballooned to a 21-6 push over a 10-minute stretch in part because Wisconsin turned four offensive rebounds immediately in the points, giving them its largest lead of the first half at 19.
"He was able to get a couple creases, and he's pretty good at finishing around the basket," said UW coach Bo Ryan. "He's just learning, but he did give us a good spark."
California started 2-for-10, including over a five minute field goal drought and committed six of its 12 first-half turnovers in the first eight minutes, turning a one-point lead into a 19-6 deficit. It ballooned from there, as the Golden Bears couldn't get the type of balance Wisconsin was possessing.
"We didn't have a good week of practice," said California coach Mike Montgomery, whose team hadn't played in a week. "I know Bo Ryan's teams well enough to what you are going to get when you come here (to the Kohl Center). We were going to get them at their best with the effort and their physicality."
Not everything was better after three days to stew over a lost opportunity in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. Wisconsin's 3-point shooting was 7-for-21 from 3-point range and its free-throw shooting was even spottier at 14-for-25 (56 percent). The Badgers were sloppy with the ball, at times, as Brust (4) and Dekker (3) combined for seven of UW's 13 turnovers.
Consider another learning lesson for a team that opens Big Ten play one week from tomorrow.
"We had some decisions that weren't good for the game," said Ryan. "That's where we have to learn."