MADISON – Although Wisconsin’s starting lineup boasts four returning seniors and an a sophomore who was the conference’s freshman of the year last season, the final five minutes of Tuesday’s night 75-68 victory at No.25 Indiana was foreign territory for the Badgers this season.
In the 14 games leading into its conference road opener, Wisconsin’s closest margin of victory was nine points at Marquette. That game was close – as was the win over Oklahoma and loss to Creighton – until one team asserted control without a counter punch from the other.
So when the game with the Hoosiers was four points or less from the 4:39 mark of the first half to the 5:30 mark of the second (save for three possessions in the second half), Wisconsin simply stuck to its principles of touching the post (18 second-half points scored in the paint or a result of being fouled in the lane) and ball security (two turnovers in the final 23 possessions).
“We try to put a maximum value on every possession and not just turn it up in the last four or five minutes,” head coach Greg Gard said. “Knowing we have to take care of the ball, knowing that we have to try and get good shots. We’ve had terrific players that have made plays through the years for us.”
The numbers speak for itself. Wisconsin (13-2, 2-0 Big Ten) is now 13-0 this season when leading or tied with five minutes remaining. Under Gard, the Badgers are 28-0 in the same situation. Since February 2011, Wisconsin is 149-5 (.968). It helps having seniors know what to expect, even if it was in a building they had never won in.
At the tail end of Indiana’s 9-0 run to take a two-point lead, the largest of the game, in the second half, Gard subbed seniors Bronson Koenig and Vitto Brown in for sophomore Alex Illikainen and freshman D'Mitrik Trice. Having all five starters on the floor for eight minutes, 46 seconds of the game’s final 14:33, the combination of Brown (three), Nigel Hayes (three), Ethan Happ (eight), Koenig (eight) and Zak Showalter (seven) scored all of Wisconsin’s 29 points.
“They understand the value of every possession and they’re used in that situation where we expect them to do good things on every possession, not just the last five minutes,” Gard said. “It helped build good habits. We’re able to have players over the years that have really responded to that and play off those habits that are game long, not just the last five minutes.”
The road test gets harder Sunday at No.20 Purdue. Although the Boilermakers (12-3, 1-1) are coming off a surprising home loss to Minnesota Sunday, and have a chance to rebound at Ohio State tonight, Purdue had five players averaging at least 9.7 points per game and two low-post players in Caleb Swanigan (18.5 ppg) and Isaac Haas (13.9 ppg) who are a handful.
The Boilermakers also are 15th in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio at 1.50 (Wisconsin is 1.35) and 20th in scoring offense (84.5 points per game), making it important for the Badgers’ veteran rest on their laurels and their 59.4 scoring defense.
“We had a pretty strong nonconference schedule, going into Creighton and some pretty hostile environments,” Koenig said. “I think we’ve gotten used to it, and we’ll be ready by Sunday.”
Wisconsin hasn’t won at Assembly Hall and Mackey Arena since the 1971-72 season
Showy Showing Up
Walk-on success stories are more common with the football program than the basketball program, although the hoops team does have a few it can point to, like Brett Valentyn, former manager Tanner Bronson and W’quinton Smith earning his spot via an open tryout. All three players developed into important contributors their senior seasons.
And there there’s Showalter, who is in a walk-on class by himself.
Showalter turned down eight-plus scholarships to walk-on at Wisconsin before ultimately getting rewarded with a scholarship prior to the 2012-13 season. He’ll leave Wisconsin as a two-year starter with the reputation for toughness. He’s now adding a knack for scoring.
In 92 career games entering this season, Showalter had scored at least 10 points only 11 times and consecutive games only twice. In 15 games this season Showalter has hit that mark six times, including four times in the last five games.
During that run he’s increased his scoring average from 6.4 points to his current 8.5 points per game.
“His offensive game has definitely grown,” Gard said of Showalter, who averaged 22.1 points during his senior season of high school. “The intangible things he does for us – the blue-collar, hard-hat mentality that he plays – he’s always on the floor. He’s an extremely tough kid, but how he has grown his offensive game in the five years he’s been on the program has been terrific. That’s a credit for how hard he’s worked, because he’s put a ton of time into it.”