MADISON - Wire-to-wire winners in its last two Big Ten conference games, the University of Wisconsin showed it can win games – home or away – without its best player being the focal point of the offense.
The Badgers showed they can survive without him, but a productive Kaminsky is certainly better for business
The national player of the year candidate got back to basics Sunday in the front of a national television, finishing with a game-high 23 points as fifth-ranked Wisconsin rolled past Illinois, 68-49, at the Kohl Center.
Bronson Koenig had 15 points, Nigel Hayes had 14 and Sam Dekker added 10 for a Wisconsin team that continues to run right through the Big Ten conference. The Badgers (23-2, 11-1 Big Ten) have won eight straight conference games – their longest streak since the 1940-41 national title season – and have tied a school record for winning five straight league games by double figures.
More importantly, the Badgers own a three game edge in the loss column with six games to go.
“It just goes to show we can beat you in a lot of different ways,” said Kaminsky.
Kaminsky carried the Badgers in the first 20 minutes by scoring 17 points on 8-for-9 shooting, doing all his damage by putting the ball on the ground and converting buckets in the low post. It was a big reason Wisconsin had a 22-6 edge in point in the paint and shot 14-for-19 from 2-point range.
And they were the difference in the early going. In a half that featured six lead changes and Illinois leading for 1:50 (the first time UW trailed since the 14 minute against Indiana Feb.3), Kaminsky sparked a 6-0 run to close the half by slicing his way into the paint to register a pair of buckets using his arsenal of low post moves.
“He scored at all three levels of the court,” said Illinois coach John Groce of Kaminsky, who also had 11 rebounds for his conference-leading 10th double-double. “He made very difficult shots. He passed it well … I think he’s certainly one of the country’s best players and today he played like it.”
Wisconsin’s four double-figure scorers combined to shoot 61.9 percent (26-for-42) from the field. Kaminsky shot 68.8 percent (11-for-16) but didn’t score for the first 15 minutes, 52 seconds of the second half.
Just like the last two games, it wasn’t a problem for Wisconsin, which kept clicking right along without Kaminsky’s points by scoring 25 points on the 18 possessions to open the half.
“If Frank can bring people out with him, clear lane space and guys can make back cuts and get in position to score from 10 feet in, that’s OK by us,” said UW coach Bo Ryan. “Our guys really don’t go out there and say, ‘Ok, let’s make sure Frank gets his x-number of points and then we’ll go get ours.’ We took what they gave us.”
Every one of the Badgers’ double-digit scorers had a stretch that carried the scoring burden. Eight of Dekker’s points came in the first half and included a couple slam dunks that added a spark to the arena. Hayes had 10 sprinkled throughout the second half and Koenig took advantage of opportunities on the perimeter, hitting three 3-pointers.
He also had zero turnovers in 37 minutes and hit a picturesque floater in the lane after Illinois had cut the lead to 9 with just over eight minutes to go. UW never led by fewer than 10 the rest of the way.
“My teammates are doing a great job finding me on offensive rebounds and kick outs from the post,” said Koenig.
Sophomore guard Malcolm Hill scored 15 points to lead Illinois (17-9, 7-6), which came into Madison riding a four game winning streak but was “brow beat” on the boards, according to Groce. Wisconsin outrebounded Illinois, 32-25, leading to a 36-14 edge in paint points, and only sent the conference’s top free throw shooting team (79.2 percent) to the line 11 times.
“They’re already the number one offensive efficiency team in the last 17 years of analytics,” said Groce, “so it’d be preferable to guard them one time instead of multiple times on a trip down the floor.”
Illinois – looking for its first win over Wisconsin since Jan.2, 2011 – found a spark early when it four 3-pointers in a six possession stretch. Ryan burned a timeout after Illinois made three consecutive, said his piece and corrected the defense.
The Illini didn’t make another one the final 30 minutes, 35 seconds, and the Badgers didn’t look back.
“Some inexperience on not closing out with a couple guys,” said Ryan. “Then we got better.”