MADISON - It’s gotten to the point where people are running out of things to say about the University of Wisconsin.
Efficient and balanced on offense, aggressive on defense and fundamentally sound, it’s no wonder the Badgers continue rolling through the Big Ten conference, putting them on the precipice of their first conference title in the seven years.
Feeling in control virtually the entire second half, No.5 Wisconsin grinded out another conference victory – this one a 63-53 decision over Minnesota – to give the Badgers their best start in school history and push their winning streak to 10.
With two weeks and four games left in the Big Ten season, Wisconsin (25-2, 13-1 Big Ten) enters its challenging closing stretch with a three game lead over Maryland, Michigan State and Purdue and can clinch a share of the conference title – its first in seven years – with a win at the Terrapins Tuesday.
Others may be feeling good about Wisconsin’s resume, the RPI and its projected NCAA Tournament seeding, but senior Josh Gasser knows better.
“We still haven’t quite put together a full 40 minutes of good basketball, but that’s hard to do in this league,” said Gasser. “We’re obviously happy with the way we’re playing, considering we’re coming out with wins, but we still got to get better if we want to get what we want. We’re really not satisfied.”
Senior center Frank Kaminsky took another step toward Big Ten Player of the Year honors with 21 points, but the UW offense – as it has been the routine during conference play - didn’t sag when Kaminsky wasn’t scoring. Registering 12 points in the first 9:44, Kaminsky didn’t score the rest of the half but UW added two points to its halftime lead.
The Gophers (16-12, 5-10) had been killed from 3-point range in their last two losses (giving up a combined 33 3-pointers), but the Badgers shot faked them to death and attacked the paint. Wisconsin shot 53.1 percent (17-for-32) on two-point field goals, scored 28 points in the paint and scored points – 12 in all - off all five first-half offensive rebounds.
Kaminsky finished 9-for-13 shooting, including a 3-pointer with 10:35 remaining (one of only six made 3-pointers for Wisconsin) that pushed the lead to 15 points and put it on cruise control from there.
“He’s one of the best players in the country,” said Minnesota coach Richard Pitino of Kaminsky. “He’s a top five pick. They put you in so many binds offensively. You trap down, he’s so big that he’s going to pass over you. You help off of him, he can knock down the three. Guy’s a pro. He’s a lottery pick. It’s very hard to guard lottery picks.
Bronson Koenig added a career-high 17 points three days after he finished with five points – his lowest as a starter – on 2-of-10 shooting. In the 11 games as a starter, Koenig has reached double figures nine times.
“My shots felt pretty good at Penn State, too; they just weren’t falling for me,” said Koenig. “I had to try to come into this game with the same mindset as every game and just shoot when I’m open.”
Minnesota brought with them a pressure defense that had been creating 10.3 steals and 18 turnovers per game, but could only generate four steals and eight turnovers from an offense averaging only 7.4 miscues a game. Three players scored 11 points to lead the Gophers but none of them were named Andre Hollins.
After scoring at least 18 points in the first five meetings against Wisconsin (excluding last January’s game when he was hurt in the opening minute), the senior finished with a season-low two points on 1-for-8 shooting.
In the last two games against the Badgers, Hollins is 3-for-22 from the floor and 2-for-10 from 3-point range.
“We try to make guys like that work,” said Wisconsin Coach Bo Ryan. “We respect them. He’s proven over the year that he’s a solid player, can score, put up numbers, so we just tried to make him work.”
Over the last five games, Wisconsin has held its opponents to 50, 55, 49, 47 and 53 points and less than one point per possession.
“You can’t simulate what they’re doing because Sam Dekker is 6-8, their two is huge and their one is huge,” said Pitino. “The way they play, they sag off you and make you take challenged jump shots. They play perfectly for their personal. You have to make jump shots. When you don’t, you’re not going to win.”
It was a modest but memorable day for Gasser. Scoring seven points, the senior joined Dekker and Kaminsky as UW players who broke the 1,000-point barrier this season and joined Michael Finley as the only Badgers players to register 1,000 pints, 500 rebounds and 250 assists for his career.
And if that wasn’t enough, his 37 minutes on the court pushed him past Alando Tucker for most minutes played in a UW career (4,303) and being a part of his 106th win puts him and Duje Dukan also at the top of the list.
“In a few months when my career is over and I can look back on everything that’s going on, I can be proud of it,” said Gasser. “Right now we have got bigger fish to fry.”
The road from here on out is no picnic for Wisconsin. Playing three of their final four games on the road, including against a pair of ranked teams in No.19 Maryland and No.23 Ohio State, without much off time before transitioning to the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments,
“These will be great tests,” said Ryan. “Hopefully you get a chance to play after the regular season, so all the games after the regular season will be tough. I don’t know what else can get you ready other than looking at what we have left?”