Hoosiers and Badgers searching for a win

Wisconsin and Indiana will be fighting to stay afloat in the Big Ten race Wednesday evening

When it comes to defending Indiana on a hot shooting night—well, pick your poison.

You could start by collapsing in on Marco Killingsworth, a Big Ten player of the year candidate and one of the best post players in the nation. After all, at 18.4 points per game the senior transfer from Auburn leads the team in scoring as well as rebounding (7.6 per contest).

Commit too much to Killingsworth, however, and you are likely to leave one of the Hoosiers' multiple deep threats open, screaming "Polo!" to Killingsworth's "Marco", attracting kickouts from the post before any pursuer can readjust.

So goes the conundrum for the University of Wisconsin men's basketball team come Wednesday night at the Kohl Center. Shooting less than stellar from the floor of late, Wisconsin will certainly need a sound defensive effort to avoid slipping to .500 in the Big Ten and dropping their third of four games at home—where they had been seemingly invincible in recent years.

The Hoosiers and Badgers share a similar predicament entering the game. Both teams find themselves at a crossroads this week in which they could right their ship with a pair of victories or cripple their chances at a Big Ten title with two losses.

For Indiana—losers of three of their past four—the gap between it and the top of the conference standings is just one-and-a-half games wide. Yet, after a 10-2 start the Hoosiers are 3-4 in their last seven, reintroducing whispers that coach Mike Davis could find his job in jeopardy if his team disappoints down the stretch.

Granted, three of those four losses came on the road in the home-dominated Big Ten, while the fourth and most recent loss came at the hands of No. 1 Connecticut. So perhaps the losing skid in Bloomington might be a bit overblown. But whether that is true or not, Indiana players have been frustrated in recent days by questions of whether they might be mentally beaten up—something the Badgers know about all too well.

A surprising 19-point loss at then last-place Minnesota on Jan. 29 was the low point for Indiana. That win dropped Purdue to the Big Ten cellar before the Boilermakers were able to similarly upset visiting Wisconsin this past weekend.

Although the Hoosiers' date with conference-leading Iowa at home Saturday might be a more critical "must-win" game in terms of the conference race, this is a team looking for a confidence boost and likely tired of recent criticisms.

To get back on track Indiana will try to pound the ball inside to Killingsworth and open up the rest of the court for its talented collection of guards, who as of last week had the Hoosiers holding onto the best 3-point shooting percentage in the country, now at .431. The Badgers will need to be mindful of those multiple weapons.

"It's literally picking your poison, but we've got to try to do both," said assistant coach Gary Close. "Because they are a terrific 3-point shooting team with a lot of different guys who can shoot. It's not like one or two. They've got four or five who can shoot the 3 and that's what makes them tough to cover, because they've got that inside-outside look."

Among those long-distance dialers are sophomore guard Robert Vaden (.462 from 3-point range), senior guard Marshall Strickland (.486), junior reserve Errek Suhr (.516), freshman big man Ben Allen (.542) and junior guard Roderick Wilmont (.398).

Vaden and Strickland are the second and third leading scorers behind Killingsworth at 14.4 and 11.6 points per game respectively. Although the Hoosiers have started a number of different lineups since sophomore forward D.J. White was lost for the season to a foot injury, it will be the platoon of guards Indiana has at its disposal that will log the most minutes.

Past Vaden and Strickland, Madison native Lewis Monroe has started 16 of 19 games and Wilmont has been in the starting lineup six times after he began the conference season as a candidate for the Big Ten sixth man of the year. His production has come along in recent games, as the 6-4 Wilmont is now averaging 9.7 per game.

Ten different Hoosiers are averaging significant playing time, compared to eight for Wisconsin, which may make it difficult for Wisconsin to run with Indiana, a team that does that fairly well.

With the number of quick guards the Hoosiers throw on the court that can shoot the ball well, Indiana is inclined toward scoring streaks at times when the 3-pointers are coming in bunches. Wisconsin will have to weather those storms and respond in kind in a way they have not in recent games.

"Hopefully we keep it to a minimum," Close said. "But they're that explosive that it is going to happen. In addition to their half-court stuff they run the ball so well. They're athletic, get it down quickly, can shoot the 3, can drive. They're a really good offensive team."

Where the Badgers can disrupt that offensive rhythm is by getting to Killingsworth early, as the ball tends to go through his hands every time down the court. In recent losses to Minnesota and Connecticut, Killingsworth got himself into early foul trouble. When he was out of the lineup was when the Hoosiers' opponents made their runs in the first half.

The Badgers cannot count on Killingsworth simply picking up two early fouls, just as they cannot assume that would force him out of the game. Illinois coach Bruce Weber elected to do gamble on big man James Augustine with two fouls in the Kohl Center last week, and it paid off.

What Alando Tucker says Wisconsin will have to do is disrupt the passes into and out of the post by sending double-teams, rotating different bodies on Killingsworth, running screens through him when he is on defense and trying to force him outside the block—something easier said than done.

"When he gets going early then it opens up opportunities for them to start shooting the 3 well and we can't let that happen," Tucker said. "Something's going to have to give, but we'd rather start with them shooting outside and forcing them to settle."

With only Killingsworth remaining as one-half of what might have been the Big Ten's best frontcourt with the presence of White, Indiana naturally experiences a drop-off when he is not on the court.

At 6-10 Allen is the tallest player on the IU roster but he primarily plays a more open-court perimeter game. Senior forward Sean Kline is one player who has been around the program and has endured plenty of criticism from the fanbase for not living up to expectations, largely because of chronic knee injuries. He is likely to see six to ten minutes on the block.

With that shorter, quicker lineup the Hoosiers could be subject to some troubles guarding their own interior. They can score points but they are also liable to giving them up, as evidenced by the 88 points Connecticut tallied on Sunday.

Mostly in the Badgers favor is the fact that Indiana has yet to win on an opponent's floor this season in the Big Ten, going 0 for 3 thus far. This would be a critical victory for the Hoosiers should they sneak one out of the Kohl Center, leaving them rejuvenated with the opportunity to draw near the conference lead this weekend.

Badger Nation Prognostication

Wisconsin very much needs this victory. With only three games remaining in the Kohl Center, the Badgers cannot afford to lose any of them. Then there is the issue of morale and whether this team would be able to win on the road should they keep losing at home, which they would likely need to do to avoid falling off the tournament bubble.

Indiana has the offensive firepower to dismantle anyone, but they have often struggled to run on all cylinders outside of Assembly Hall.

The key for Wisconsin could be the play of Kevin Gullikson, who is steadily increasing his minutes on the floor. What Gullikson needs to provide might not be listed in the box score Thursday, but will be critical if Wisconsin is to mimic the success Minnesota had disrupting Killingsworth.

In that game, walk-on Harvard transfer Zach Puchtel got the starting nod after a hard week of practice and impressed everyone by containing Killingsworth for a majority of the game, getting him into foul trouble early. Afterwards, Davis said he did not know who Puchtel was but that he did of a hell of a job defensively. Gullikson might need to help out Wednesday in filling that type of selfless role.

There is little chance of shutting down the Hoosiers offense for 40 minutes, however, as they will inevitably go on scoring runs the way they shoot the ball from almost everywhere on the floor. Wisconsin would be quite lucky to run into a night in which IU again shot just 21.7 percent from beyond the arc—as they did at Minnesota.

Meanwhile, the Badgers will need to rediscover their shooting touch to endure those streaks. Often times lately players will stand around watching Tucker make a play, but everyone needs to keep moving at all times—something the coaching staff is stressing this week.

Tucker and point guard Kammron Taylor are certainly capable of playing big games in the Kohl Center. The key will be whether a third scorer or a combination of some others can step up and lend support to the Badgers' big two.

Ray Nixon is the most likely candidate. His shooting at Michigan was the unsung catalyst that really got the Badgers back in the game before Taylor nearly finished the job on his own. Conversely, when Wisconsin failed to make a run at Illinois last week, a large part of that had to do with the 1 of 7 long-range shooting by Nixon. At the behest of his teammates, he has become more aggressive and quick to shoot, which the Badgers need. Whether he can make those shots should go a long way to determining the outcome Wednesday.

Wisconsin will also need to crash the offensive glass and will need to accept the fact that IU will shoot the ball from outside. After the Hoosiers let loose from 3, UW needs to be ready to eliminate second chances—mostly long rebounds—by boxing out the smaller, shiftier guards. Both teams have struggled to rebound in Big Ten games (UW is seventh in the league in rebounding margin, IU is eighth), and gaining the upper hand in this regard could be very significant Wednesday.

This game could go either way, especially with the questionable health of Brian Butch (left ankle, will play), but I think the Kohl Center has enough magic left and that Bo Ryan can elicit enough defensive response out of his players to take advantage of the crowd. It will take making some easy baskets inside to boost their shooting confidence, but I give the Badgers a slight edge with their backs to the wall.

Our pick: Wisconsin 73, Indiana 70

What: Wisconsin (15-7 overall, 5-4 Big Ten) v. No. 24 Indiana (13-6, 5-3)
When: Wednesday, Feb. 6 at 6:03 p.m. Central
Site: Kohl Center (17,142) in Madison, Wis.
Broadcasts: Game will be televised live on ESPN and shown on tape delay on Wisconsin Public Television. Live broadcast on Wisconsin Radio Network.
Series notes: Indiana leads the all-time series 92-54. The Hoosiers are 40-32 in Madison but Wisconsin has won the last five meetings at the Kohl Center… UW has won five of the last six games in the series… This is the only scheduled meeting between the teams this season.

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