EVANSTON, Ill. - The conference competition is expected to get harder in the weeks to come for the University of Wisconsin. With the way the Badgers have been shooting, it might not matter who stands in their way.
Four days after shooting 63.6 percent – its best shooting percentage in 17 years – in the conference-opening win over Penn State, No.4 Wisconsin stayed hot with a 52.6 percent shooting performance in its 81-58 win over Northwestern Sunday.
Four players cracked double-figure scoring for Wisconsin (14-1, 2-0 Big Ten), which won for the fifth straight time at Welsh-Ryan Arena and improved to 23-5 (.821) away from home over the last two seasons.
“We just try to approach every game the same way,” said senior Duje Dukan. “Obviously playing on the road is going to be tougher, playing in a hostile environment. We just want to look at the scouting report, analyze everybody the same and get ready to go.”
Much like it has been for most of the season, the Badgers’ attack was balanced and productive.
Sam Dekker scored 16 points, Frank Kaminsky added 11 of his 16 in the second half, Dukan finished with 14 off the bench and Nigel Hayes had his 10 in the first half, as the Badgers scored 80-plus points in consecutive Big Ten games for the first time since Steve Yoder’s final year in February 1992.
“We’ve had a few nights this year where we’ve had a multitude of guys putting shots in the bucket,” said Dekker. “I think that’s what’s cool about our team this year. We have a lot of guys who are confident to take those shots…When you have weapons like that, it makes the game a lot easier.”
UW was 18-for-32 from 2-point range (56 percent) and 12-for-25 (48 percent) from 3-point range, outscoring Northwestern (10-5, 1-1) 36-12 from beyond the arc.
“They were tremendous from 3-point range,” said Northwestern coach Chris Collins. “This is a national-championship quality team. When you have five guys who can really play out there, you have to pick you poison … Sometimes when that happens, you have to tip your cap.”
Like any team with Final Four aspirations, Wisconsin kept passing the scoring baton from one person to the next.
It started with Kaminsky, who grew up a little more than 30 miles to the southwest of the campus. He impressed his loud cheering section by finding production for himself and opening things up for his teammates to assert control early on.
The senior All-American had five points and five rebounds after 4:30 of game time and put 7-0 junior center Alex Olah on the bench with two fouls in the first 3:40 by drawing contact in the low post.
“He’ll play the other parts of the game and that’s why he’s one of the better players in the country,” said UW coach Bo Ryan, who earned his 158th Big Ten win to tie Hall of Famer Walter Meanwell for most in school history. “That’s why people would like to have him on their team, because he is a complete player.”
With Olah out and the Wildcats hedging the low post, the Badgers started splashing shots from everywhere. In the first eight minutes, Wisconsin was 7-for-10 from the floor, 5-for-6 from 3-point range and a perfect 3-for-3 from the line, and four of those buckets came on assists from Kaminsky.
Kaminsky finished with his 10 rebounds for his league-leading seventh double-double and had six assists to no turnovers.
“Frank opens up so much for the whole team,” said Dekker. “He gets a lot of attention inside and for good cause. He’s one of the best players in the nation. He’s going to get a lot of that attention and get double downed a lot. That’s going to open up looks for us.”
The benefactors were numerous. Dekker hit his first four 3-pointers before his forced fifth one sent him to the bench. That cleared the way for Dukan, as the senior hit two 3-pointers and had 10 first-half points, and Hayes, who scored eight straight UW points after the 4:40 mark and was a perfect 5-for-5 in getting his 10 points.
Even with Kaminsky on the bench for the final 8:06 with two fouls, Wisconsin still shot 53.6 percent (15-for-28) from the floor, had 14 assists and outscored the Wildcats 24-0 from 3-point range in the opening half.
It had a similar ring to last year, when Wisconsin – in its first Big Ten road game – led 40-14 after the opening half.
“These guys, they love the game,” said Ryan, as UW finished with 23 assists to seven turnovers. “They’re going to work hard. We give them enough days off over the break here to gather themselves. They did real well on their finals. Guys are happy now that they get a little break from Monday-through-Friday classroom schedule. They’re a little bit freer.”
After shooting 39 percent in its conference opening win at Rutgers Tuesday, the Wildcats missed six of their first seven shots and went 8-for-28 (28.6 percent) in the opening 20 minutes. More importantly, UW limited the Wildcats to only four offensive rebounds and three second-chance points off those misses.
Second in the Big Ten in scoring defense (58.9 points per game), the Wildcats allowed a season high in points and didn’t start finding success until the UW lead ballooned to 28 late in the second half.
That surge was quickly correctly, as UW held Northwestern to only nine points over the final 7:23.
“You’ve got to have some guys who are really strong willed and stay to the task, keep doing the things that we were doing early (in nonconference play),” said Ryan. “We’re not going to change. We’re going to get better.”