MADISON – A home season that started with one of the most surprising and embarrassing losses in the last decade ended with Wisconsin taking a step toward being a Big Ten champion.
Yep, it’s been that kind of season in the Big Ten and with the Badgers.
Dealing with a pesky Michigan squad itself fighting for its N.C.A.A. tournament lives, Wisconsin used a 13-3 run midway through the second half to build a cushion and continued streaking away from the Wolverines in a 68-57 victory at the Kohl Center.
After the what-the-heck-is-wrong 1-4 start to conference play, Wisconsin (19-10, 11-5 Big Ten) enters the final week of the regular season in a four-way tie with Iowa, Maryland and Michigan State for second place, two games behind Indiana. And clinching a share of the Hoosiers’ title isn’t inconceivable with Indiana traveling to No.8 Iowa Tuesday and hosting No.10 Maryland Sunday.
“It was heartbreaking to lose those (early) games,” said freshman forward Ethan Happ. “I’ll never forget how that felt. I know my teammates don’t either. We’re such a different team since then. It’s nice to see how we’ve came.”
Added Bronson Koenig, who finished with a game-high 19 points: “A lot of guys have stepped up and matured.”
Wisconsin’s players have said multiple times over the course of the last seven weeks that its turnaround was a result of the Badgers getting back to old habits – employing the swing offense to help with the spacing, touching the post and getting to the free throw line.
The success of the emphasis under head coach Greg Gard hasn’t just been evident in the Badgers winning 10 of the last 11 games but in the second half to finish the year 13-5 at home.
Despite Michigan (20-10, 10-7) being undersized in the low block, and being outscored by an average of 5.7 points in the paint, Wisconsin settling for outside shots in the opening 20 minutes resulted in 4-for-12 from the perimeter, six points inside and a 30-29 halftime deficit.
That problem was eradicated in the second half with the Badgers pummeling the Wolverines for 20 points in the low block, including seven straight layups that were a part of UW’s game-changing run as the Wolverines were forced to space out the floor.
“Once we started hitting shots in the second half, they couldn’t be as willing double down on us,” said Happ, as Wisconsin shot 56 percent in the second half, 14.3 percentage points better than the opening 20 minutes. “We were able to have more room to operate.”
After Wisconsin’s bench added 23 points in Wednesday’s upset win at No.8 Iowa, Wisconsin’s starting lineup did the heavy lifting. In addition to Koenig, Nigel Hayes had 16 points and seven rebounds, Vitto Brown had 14 points (4-for-6 on 3-pointers) and Happ added 12.
Zak Irvin led four Michigan players in double figures with 14 points, but the Badgers held leading scorer Derrick Walton Jr. to 10 points on 3-for-13 shooting. The Wolverines lost for the first time this season when holding an opponent under 70 points.
“Wisconsin was playing as good as anybody in the league, and they certainly showed that,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “They’ve got great pieces between a point guard that’s been to two Final Fours, a power forward that’s been to two Final Fours and then the other guys fill in beautifully around them. It’s like the same movie I’ve seen many, many times.”
Third in the Big Ten and 12th nationally in 3-point field goal percentage (39.8 percent), Michigan never got comfortable from the perimeter against the Badgers’ defense. The Wolverines only hit five 3-pointers, as UW took away the actions that usually allowed Michigan to find open spacing. UW also gobbled up the long rebounds for a 33-20 edge on the boards.
After giving up an average of 65.6 points over the first eight Big Ten games, Wisconsin has limited its last eight conference opponents to 60.1 points, a number that continues to improve as the calendar is about to turn to March.
“Everybody talks about offensive chemistry or the ability to play together offensively,” said Gard. “I think that also has to mature defensively. I think we’ve got better at when to exchange screens, when not to. I think we’ve got better in terms of where to squeeze, minimizing driving lines away from the ball, better at chasing and not making mistakes … but I still see a lot of areas where we can get more consistent.”