After coming out of a tough non-conference schedule with a 10-2 record, the Badgers will soon find out just where their relatively young roster stands in what may be the nation's best conference.
UW's Big Ten assessment begins with a very good Iowa team. The Hawkeyes returned all five starters—three seniors and two juniors—from a year ago. The headliners are fourth-year starters point guard Jeff Horner and forward Greg Brunner and junior guard Adam Haluska. But Iowa's top reserves also returned; the Hawkeyes role players have improved making this a deeper and more dangerous bunch.
"Last year, especially after (Paul) Pierce left, they weren't very deep," UW assistant coach Gary Close said. "And they are playing nine guys now. So they're deeper than they were last year and their bench is more experienced too."
Iowa is 11-3 heading into conference play, despite shooting a meager 42 percent from the floor. The Hawkeyes are beating teams with defense—holding opponents to 36 percent shooting—and veteran savvy. But do not expect Iowa's cold shooting to last all season.
"You almost (have) to throw those stats out," Close said. "Those guys are proven shooters. All shooters go through some tough stretches and they have this year. But I tell you what, I don't want to see Horner or Haluska get off shots. Chances are they'll knock them down.
"They are as good of three-point shooters as there are in the country and they've got deep range. And they can do it in a lot of different ways. I'm afraid that whatever slump they were in so to speak—judging from the last couple games—is over."
After missing four games due to injury, Horner returned against St. Louis Dec. 30 and scored 17 points on 5 of 13 shooting, including 3 of 6 from the three-point arc. Horner has made just 32 percent of his triples this year, but made 43 percent as a sophomore and 41 percent last year.
Haluska has been on a tear the past two games, averaging 17.5 points while making 8 of 13 three-pointers.
Haluska (14.1 points and 2.8 assists per game) and Horner (12.5, 6.4) can create for themselves or their teammates. Yet Brunner might be Iowa's best player, and its toughest player to match up against. Generously listed at 6-foot-7, Brunner plays taller. He has seven double-doubles this season, more than any Wisconsin player has had in his career, and is averaging 14.1 points and 9.9 rebounds per game.
"He's a second, third, fourth effort guy," Close said. "He just doesn't stop. He's relentless, in addition to being skilled. He just works. He's a typical Iowa kid. A lot like the Wisconsin kids, they just get after it. He probably epitomizes that more than anybody. He's just a warrior…
"He's strong. He's not tall, so to speak, at 6-6 or 6-7 but he's wide and strong and he's got great hands. And he can jump. He plays bigger than his height because he can get good position and he can get off the floor."
Brunner has to play big in Iowa's three-guard lineup, which will create some intriguing matchups with the Badgers' much bigger starting five.
After struggling offensively at Pittsburgh on New Year's Eve, Wisconsin will try to bounce back at home against an Iowa team that is allowing just 55.1 points per game.
"They are limiting the number of good opportunities that you're getting," Close said. "They've got some really good defensive guards in Horner and Henderson that can apply pressure. And they've got maybe the best shot blocker in the country protecting the rim."
The shot blocker is center Erek Hansen, who has improved markedly as a senior, both offensively and defensively. Hansen struggled to stay on the floor last season, fouling out six times. This year the 6-11 Hansen has been whistled for four fouls on four occasions, but has yet to foul out. He is averaging 2.9 blocked shots per game.
"He's made good, steady progress in all phases," Close said. "He always was a pretty good shot blocker. He's doing a better job now of staying out of foul trouble, picking his spots. He's a better post player offensively."
Iowa does have one freshman that plays extensively: point guard Tony Freeman, who replaced Horner in the starting lineup during his four-game absence. Freeman leads the bench players with 20.4 minutes per game. The rest of the rotation, however, is made up of Big Ten veterans: junior starting guard Mike Henderson, senior forward Doug Thomas, sophomore guard Carlton Reed and sophomore forward Alex Thompson.
"They're experienced and talented," Close said. "And if you're building a team, you love to have a great guard, and they have two of them. And then you love to have a great post, and they've got two of them. And then they've got some good players surrounding them. So it's a team that's very experienced and talented and well coached and that's why they've been successful."
Badger Nation prognostication
The Badgers may be less experienced, but they can match Iowa's depth, and they have played very well after a loss in Bo Ryan's five seasons as head coach.
It will be interesting to see how the matchup chess match plays out, especially as Iowa tries to slow down Alando Tucker and Wisconsin aims to check the Haluska-Horner-Brunner three-headed monster. UW point guard Kammron Taylor should have a big night after struggling at Pittsburgh.
Winning on the road will be very difficult in the Big Ten this season and is always tough at the Kohl Center.
Our pick: Wisconsin 68, Iowa 65
What: Wisconsin (10-2) v. Iowa (11-3)
When: Thursday, Jan. 5 at 7 p.m. Central
Site: Kohl Center (17,142) in Madison, Wis.
Broadcasts: Televised live on ESPN Plus (WISC in Madison; WMLW in Milwaukee; WACY in Green Bay). Tape-delayed on Wisconsin Public Television. Live broadcast on Wisconsin Radio Network.
Series notes: Iowa leads the all-time series 74-69, but the Badgers have won the past five games and nine of the last 11 between the teams… Wisconsin assistant Gary Close was an assistant at Iowa from 1986-99.