Currently, Wisconsin sits a half-game behind both Iowa and Ohio State for first place in the league standings. If the Badgers win at Northwestern (4-8 Big Ten, 12-12 overall) tonight, they will join the Buckeyes and Hawkeyes at 9-4 in conference play, with three games remaining on the schedule for each team.
The Badgers are well aware of the standings. But none of that matters if they cannot get the job done tonight in Evanston, Ill.
"It's the next game, it's a place that's awfully difficult to play at," UW assistant coach Greg Gard said. "It's a team that plays with much more confidence and much more aggression at home, which I think is typical if you look at any team across the league.
It is no secret that in the Big Ten home teams have been dominant this season. That places even more importance on Thursday's game for Wisconsin. With three of the Badgers' four remaining games on the road, including daunting challenges at Michigan State and at Iowa to close out the regular season next week, they must win in Evanston to have a shot at the Big Ten championship.
"I mean it's big, but pretty much every game from now on is going to be big, so you can't let that affect you," junior forward Jason Chappell said. "You are just going into every game trying to play as hard as you can, be (as) prepared as you can, and just try to get a win."
The Wildcats are not going to go quietly into the night. Northwestern needs this game for a possible shot at a postseason berth in the NIT. And the Wildcats can be tough at home, boasting a 7-4 record at Welsh-Ryan Arena (2-3 in Big Ten play, compared to 2-5 on the road), including an impressive win over Iowa
But Wisconsin's schedule just gets tougher after Thursday. A resurgent Minnesota team that is suddenly dreaming NCAA Tournament dreams comes to the Kohl Center Sunday afternoon. The Gophers are now No. 57 in the RPI rankings, and have won five of their last seven conference games. Wisconsin stands at No. 8 in the RPI, just ahead of its last two opponents: No. 9 Iowa and No. 10 Michigan State.
Northwestern is No. 87 in the RPI.
"You can look at all of the rankings and all of that kind of stuff you want, but playing on the road in the Big Ten, you can lose to any team any night, so you know you've got to be prepared," Chappell said. "I think that's been proven that you can't take any road game lightly the way things have gone this year. So we definitely know that won't be easy."
Wisconsin will take that message to heart. After all, the Badgers are just 2-3 on the road this year in conference play, compared to 6-1 at home. The road wins came at the expense of Minnesota and Penn State.
At this point in the season, though, standing a half-game out of first place with four games to play, the Badgers are right where they want to be each year.
"Our goal at every place we've been, when you come into the last couple weeks of the season is be in the hunt for a conference championship," said Gard, who was also an assistant under head coach Bo Ryan at UW-Milwaukee and UW-Platteville. "And then… the postseason always takes care of itself.
"That's always been the No. 1 goal here is to try to win the Big Ten and for the most part, every year we've been here, except for last year, we've been able to be in the hunt coming into that last couple weeks."
The Badgers are poised for a run at the title because of their current three-game winning streak, reversing a losing trend that saw the team dip from 4-0 in the league to 5-4.
Chappell said he is not surprised by the team's turnaround.
"I always knew we had it in us," he said. "We had a good start to the season, we just hit a little bit of a drought there where we weren't playing so well. But I was pretty confident that we'd be able to pick it up again."
What are the keys for Wisconsin to remain successful?
"Our defense and just staying focused because three out of our last four games are on the road," junior guard Kammron Taylor said. "We know the crowd is going to be crazy. I know two of those teams that we're playing are in the hunt for the championship…
"Our main priority is… getting stops on defense. Because our offense is really starting to click these last three games."
A lot has gone well for the Badgers in wins over Indiana, Penn State and Ohio State—the latter win taking on added importance after the Buckeyes dispatched Michigan State on the road Wednesday night.
"You want to take care of the next game on your schedule," Gard said. "You want to keep building on good things that have happened so far and what you've had accomplished in the last couple weeks. Set yourself up for the postseason but also we're coming down the stretch here of this run, and try to keep ourselves in mix where we can go into that last week with a lot of things to play for."
Badger Nation Prognostication, Wisconsin at Northwestern
Statistically, the Wildcats and Badgers are the two best in the Big Ten at taking care of the basketball. But those low turnover numbers did not hold water in a sloppy beginning to the team's matchup in Madison Jan. 14. Wisconsin in particular was off the mark, both with its shots and its execution. But the Wildcats could not get anything going either and were unable to take advantage.
Late in the first half UW's offense kicked in and the Badgers dominated from there. But a similarly slow start will not suffice in Evanston, where the Wildcats are more precise with their cuts and better with their shots.
Vedran Vukusic and Mohamed Hachad provide a very strong 1-2 scoring punch for the Wildcats, averaging 32.3 points per game in Big Ten play. Vukusic leads the league in scoring in all games (20.1 points per game) and trails only Wisconsin's Alando Tucker (20.9) in conference-only scoring (19.5).
Vukusic scored 15 points in the first meeting between the teams, but made just 6 of 15 shots. However, one of the players who defended him that time—freshman Marcus Landry—has since been ruled academically ineligible. Joe Krabbenhoft also did a solid job on Vukusic, but Chappell will likely receive the primary assignment—as he would have Jan. 14, if not for foul trouble.
"(Vukusic) is real dynamic with what he can do, being 6-8 or 6-9 and being able to shoot the 3 and do all the different things he does," Chappell said. "… You've got to make sure whoever is guarding him is just focused and ready to step up to that, and just not give him any open shots."
That is easier said than done considering Vukusic's talent level, and Northwestern's patient offensive sets. But it is a challenge the Badgers will have to rise up against.
The Wildcats, meanwhile, will have a very difficult time dealing with Alando Tucker and Kammron Taylor, who combined for 34 points last time versus NU and are currently averaging 36.7 points per game in conference play.
What truly makes the Badgers dangerous in this game, though, is the resurgence of forward Brian Butch, who should have some favorable matchups to work against versus Northwestern. His 6-11 frame should be tough for the Wildcats to handle in the paint, and his ability to step out and shoot the ball will be important when NU collapses down on Tucker.
The pick: Wisconsin 68, Northwestern 59.
What: Wisconsin (18-7 overall, 8-4 Big Ten) at Northwestern (12-12, 4-8)
When: Thursday, Feb. 23 at 8 p.m. Central.
Site: Welsh-Ryan Arena (8,117) in Evanston, Ill.
Broadcasts: ESPN2 will televise the game live; Wisconsin Radio Network will broadcast the game live.
Series notes: Wisconsin leads the all-time series 100-59 but Northwestern owns a 36-34 edge in Evanston. The Badgers have won 10 of the last 12 in the series.