The Badgers are third in the country and have spent the last six weeks among the top four teams in the country. Wisconsin is one of four defeated programs remaining in division 1, rank first in the RPI and in strength of schedule.
It's a dream scenario for a true freshman like Nigel Hayes to walk into, but even he knows that the Badgers are playing with fire when it comes to their offensive rebounding – or lack thereof – over the past week.
In their last two Big Ten games, victories over No.22 Iowa and No.23 Illinois, the Badgers surrendered a total of 41 offensive rebounds and 41 second-chance points; two numbers that took some luster away once Hayes and his teammates looked at the stat sheet.
"It took a lot of wind out of our sails," said Hayes. "We pride ourselves on defense giving up those tough shots when they shoot late in the shot clock. You are playing over 30 seconds of great defense and they shoot a tough shot, the one you want, and they miss, but they get the rebound and you have to start all over again."
Wisconsin entered its Jan.5 game against Iowa leading the Big Ten with a defensive rebounding percentage of 74.8 percent, but dropped to fourth after only grabbing 60 percent of the Hawkeyes' misses and a season-low 54.5 percent against Illinois. The Fighting Illini finished with a staggering 25 offensive rebounds.
"Illinois rebounded about 45 percent of its misses, which is definitely more than what you want," said assistant coach Lamont Paris. "They did hurt us on the boards. We did a good job stopping them from converting, which was the difference in the Iowa game."
Sixteen of those rebounds came after Wisconsin has already put the game away following a 20-0 run in the first half (Illinois missed 54 shots on Wednesday), but junior guard Josh Gasser admitted that they can't use that as an excuse.
"We lost some focus once we got that lead," said Gasser. "It's a great teaching point; play each possession like it's your last. That's what we have to do, especially against a team like Indiana who is a very good offensive rebounding team as well."
"Very good" is an understatement, as Indiana (11-5, 1-2 Big Ten) will provide the toughest test yet on the glass for No.3 Wisconsin (16-0, 3-0) tonight at Assembly Hall.
The Hoosiers lead the Big Ten in offensive rebounds (14.9 per game) and rebound margin (plus-12.3) and average 15.6 second-chance points per game. With the Hoosiers being young and often aloof with the basketball (Indiana gives up a league-high 16.1 turnovers per game), the extra opportunities are one of their saving graces.
Forward Noah Vonleh, who was named the conference's freshman of the week Monday, leads the conference with 9.3 rebounds, 2.6 of which are on the offensive glass, and the Hoosiers have at least three other players who have at least 24 offensive rebounds through 16 games.
"They have great athleticism with Vonleh, Sheehey and the big guys that they have," said Hayes, who averages 2.4 rebounds per game. "They have great athleticism, great positioning and the pride thing. They want the ball more."
Wisconsin's rebounding numbers aren't as strong as in past year because the Badgers – who graduated three frontcourt starters last season – now utilize a three-guard lineup. Forward Sam Dekker (6.9) leads the team in rebounding following by center Frank Kaminsky (5.9), but the Badgers also count on 6-1 Ben Brust (5.1), 6-2 Traevon Jackson (4.4) and 6-3 Gasser (3.8).
But size doesn't matter in rebounding, not when Brust registered five double-doubles last season.
According to Hayes, it amounts to positioning and desire.
"It's more so pride," he said. "We have to take it upon ourselves to not let teams get 25 offensive rebounds. Later down the road, giving a team that, it will more than likely kill us. We have to take it upon ourselves to not let these teams not get these offensive rebounds."