While the Kohl Center court was quiet, hip hop music could be heard blaring from the Nicholas Johnson pavilion. The lights in the practice center were off with only natural light filtering in to dimly light the courts.
Nine of the 10 baskets were empty but on the furthest court from the door stood senior forward Mike Bruesewitz. Alone his thoughts and with an automatic rebounder situated underneath the basket, Bruesewitz worked quietly on his free throws.
Entering the final conference games of his career, Bruesewitz is making sure he leaves nothing to chance.
"What you are going to get with Mike is terrific work ethic and toughness," said assistant coach Gary Close. "He's been battling injuries. I don't know if he's even completely healthy, but he's brought it every game, which as a coach you can appreciate. He's done a good job of leading by example and, sometimes, vocally. He's set the direction of the team."
That vocal leadership has popped up numerous times, including after a 60-50 loss at in-state rival Marquette in early December, the Badgers' fourth nonconference loss and the most since head coach Bo Ryan's first season in 2001. Calling a team meeting after the game, the motto of the get together was blunt honesty, getting everyone to look at themselves in the mirror, reset their goals and get everyone to play with more maturity.
"We were running with a couple of young guys at point and kind of struggling a little bit," said Bruesewitz. "(We were) just trying to find the identity of the team and figuring out what we need to do to be successful."
The meeting seemed to work with the Badgers winning the next seven, including a 64-59 upset at No.2 Indiana. So after Sunday's surprising home loss seemed to knock UW out of contention for its first conference championship since 2008, Bruesewitz was asked if it was time for another team meeting. The answer? A resounding no.
"We're fine," said Bruesewitz. "It's not time to push the panic button. We just did to be sharper offensively and make sure we don't let the loss become a hangover."
If Wisconsin does let it linger, the Badgers will have blown a second opportunity in five days to move one game out of first place in the Big Ten. With Indiana losing Tuesday at home to Ohio State, Wisconsin's game at No.10 Michigan State at the Breslin Center tonight becomes a must-win for both teams, as each trail Indiana by 1.5 games with two to go.
And with the Hoosiers traveling to No.7 Michigan Sunday, anything is possible.
"You've got to make sure you take care of business because you can't look too far ahead, but you also get those butterflies in your stomach because you know right around the corner all the fun stuff is coming," said Bruesewitz. "It's a pretty special time coming up."
As his college career starts to approach the finish line, Bruesewitz is posting a career-best 6.6 points and 5.3 rebounds per game. While he's scored in double figured in only six games this season, Bruesewitz acts like a 20-point scorer with his rebounding (he's 11th in the conference with 6.2 rebounds during conference play), intensity and energy.
"His worth doesn't show up in the box score each and every night," said Close. "He's been really solid defensively. He's done a good job on some really good scorers in this league, as well as rebounding, taking care of the ball and things we need to do to be successful."
So when Wisconsin lacked the energy and the fire power in the second half Sunday, Bruesewitz was candid that Wisconsin didn't do the things it prides itself on.
"We had them down and we got cold, they went on a run to get momentum going into the half and that carried over," said Bruesewitz. "They outplayed us. We didn't step on their throats when we needed to. We should have ended that game early."
So with an opportunity to take a big step finishing in the top four in conference for the 12th straight season, Bruesewitz isn't going to let a chance to prove people wrong keep him down.
"Everybody said this was the year we're not going to finish fourth or higher, and I'd like to prove a lot of people wrong," Bruesewitz said. "That would be fun for me."