In order to play well, the Badgers need to give their dynamic duo a generous helping of touches and shot attempts. Wisconsin (22-8 overall), though, has been at its best when its role players take some of the burden off Wilkinson's and Tucker's broad shoulders. The Badgers are 8-0 when someone other than Wilkinson or Tucker is the team's leading scorer.
"It can't just be us two trying to carry the load because teams are going to get tough and teams are going to start realizing that and try to shut us two down," Tucker said recently.
UW's first-round NCAA Tournament opponent, Northern Iowa (21-10), has not faced the Badgers since 1987, but the basic scouting report on Wisconsin is an open book. Opposing teams know the Badgers' offense goes through Wilkinson, a 6-foot-8 senior, and Tucker, a 6-5 sophomore, who have combined to average 29.2 points per game, and have accounted for 41 percent of UW's total scoring this season.
Knowing what is coming, however, does not imply that opponents can necessarily stop it. Tucker leads the team in scoring (14.9 points per game), is second in rebounding (6.4 per game) and second in field goal percentage (49). Wilkinson is second in scoring (14.3), first in rebounding (7.3) and first in field goal percentage (50). The duo scored more than half of the Badgers' points in four of five games late in the season.
"We've got to make sure that they get going," sophomore guard Kammron Taylor said. "As they go, it seems like the team goes."
As the season has progressed, Wilkinson and Tucker have faced a steady stream of double teams when they catch the ball at or near the low block or when they drive to the lane. When defenses collapse, however, options present themselves. Wilkinson and Tucker are good enough to get their shots off despite a double team, but they are also unselfish leaders who would just as soon see a teammate get an open shot. The problem is that the supporting cast—with a few interruptions—has been mired in a slump for the past month.
Particularly troubling has been the Badgers' 3-point shooting struggles. The team needs just nine made 3-pointers to set a program single-season record, but its 33 percent conversion rate in the past five games has not struck fear in opponents.
Guards Sharif Chambliss, Kammron Taylor and Clayton Hanson have been in a deep funk, making just 28 percent of their field goals (38 of 135) and 32 percent of their triples (25 of 78) in the past nine games. UW is averaging 61.2 points per game in that stretch, after posting 68.0 per game in its first 10 Big Ten contests.
The Badgers' swing offense is predicated on movement with and without the ball, but it has grown staid at times recently as the team focuses too much on Tucker and Wilkinson.
"If we work the ball on the inside, we can get shots for guys on the perimeter," Tucker said. "But also guys can't get really too comfortable on just watching us when we get the ball. They have to steady move off the ball."
Lessons from Illinois
That lack of flow was evident in the Badgers' 54-43 loss to top-ranked Illinois in the championship game of the Big Ten Tournament Sunday. The Illini played aggressive defense, locking down on UW man-to-man and befuddling Wilkinson and Tucker with double teams in the lane.
The Badgers may not see another team as good as Illinois defensively, but there were still lessons to be learned from the outing. UW went to the free throw line only eight times, and was forced out of its offensive comfort zone.
"We just need to continue to attack," Wilkinson said. "If someone takes it away, find the next guy. Just continue to go from there and keep taking good shots because eventually they are going to start falling."
"Me and Mike, we set the tone pretty much on this team, and we have to feed off each other," Tucker said. "I don't think we did that too much in the Illinois game. We have to pick each other up at different times."
Accepting a dominant role
Tucker and Wilkinson have confidently grasped the Badgers' reins. They have each commanded a leadership role through the strength of their character within the team, and they are not players who will shy away.
"We're the type of players that we wouldn't mind having that weight on our shoulders," Tucker said. "You have to be strong if you're going to be a leader, you have to accept responsibility."
The duo has accepted every challenge thrown its way, from playing through injuries—as each player has—to scrapping for rebounds to hitting clutch shots. In their second full season playing together, Wilkinson and Tucker have developed a special chemistry on the court, a kind of sixth sense as to where each will be at a given time. When one drives, the other is spotting up, ready for the ball. When one shoots, the other is crashing the glass.
On March 1, that chemistry gave UW a 62-60 win over Indiana. Wilkinson said he knew where Tucker was going to miss his 3-point attempt from the corner with time running down, and Tucker said he knew he needed to crash the glass as Wilkinson attempted a put back. Tucker ended up grabbing that rebound and laying in the game winner as time expired.
"If he's going to drive, he knows where I'm going to be, where I'm going to have my hands," Wilkinson said. "Things like that just you kind of get a feel for each other after you've played enough games and you see how defenses are trying to play you."
Calling all role players
The dynamic duo could use a sidekick. It could be Zach Morley, who averaged 15 points per game in the Big Ten Tournament. Or perhaps Taylor, who led the Badgers in scoring three times in one four-game stretch. Or it could be Hanson or Chambliss, if a couple made triples snap them out from the shooting cold.
If the players around them are hitting shots, Wilkinson or Tucker can dominate a game. Double team them too tightly and they will gladly let their teammates hurt you. Loosen up that double team, and watch them school an unsuspecting victim in the post.
What happens, though, if their teammates are cold in Oklahoma City?
"You still have to not be afraid to take them," Wilkinson said. "If it's open, if it's a good shot, you still have to take it… And just because one doesn't fall doesn't mean the next one's not going to. You need that mentality."
The Badgers' shooting the past month has left something to be desired, but it has not affected their confidence.
"We could come out the next game and shoot lights out," Wilkinson said.