Wide Awake

The Badgers know from experience not to fall asleep on Northwestern writes Matt Lewis in his preview.

Kam Taylor wore blank like Jessica Simpson at a Mensa convention. He stared at reporters half-bewildered, half-disappointed.

Alando Tucker, on the other hand, sported that wide-grinned smile the entire nation is now getting to know. He perfected it in north Illinois. And there he was again, climbing the bleachers at Northwestern's Welsh-Ryan Arena.

Perhaps the smile wasn't 100 percent genuine at first. Tucker emerged from the locker room following a 62-51 sleeper of a loss at the hands of the Wildcats – a 39 percent shooting performance that left Taylor and his teammates scratching their heads and kicking up dust. Tucker's friends and family from Lockport had stuck around to catch up with the prodigal son returned, which softened the blow a bit.

At that time Wisconsin had no idea the loss would begin a string of unsuccessful ventures away from the Kohl Center. The Badgers would go on to lose at Michigan State and Iowa in the season's final week before falling to Indiana at the Big Ten tournament and ultimately to an underachieving Arizona team at the NCAA in Philadelphia.

An active and patient Northwestern offense had coupled with a 1-3-1 zone that the Badgers were sometimes hesitant to attack or pick apart for the right shots. The Wildcats pulled away with a late run as no one Badger played particularly well.

"You already hit on it," Taylor said. "Our shots were not falling. Shots that I usually make, I was airballing. I was getting my shot blocked. We weren't doing a good job of executing our zone offense. For that game they mostly played a 1-3-1 zone, and I don't think we did a good job of attacking that zone. I think we settled too much for the outside shot.

"And I think also that we were rushing shots, too. Because you know in a zone, a zone is made for teams to shoot the ball. I think they caught us in that trap settling for the outside shot. This is something that we have to learn from last year. We've got the same guys back. We're a year older and I feel like we can learn from that game."

Welsh-Ryan Arena feels more like an elite high school gym than it does a Big Ten home. A little over six thousand showed up a year ago – student fans standing right off the floor in opposite sets of short bleachers within a whisper from the baseline.

It is a place that can lull you to sleep almost as effectively as Northwestern's style of play, making visitors prime for a letdown if they find themselves with initial sluggishness. The Badgers in particular have left something to be desired on the floor in their recent visits.

"It can [lull you]," Taylor confirmed. "It definitely can if you're not focused and you're not ready for the game. And I think that was our problem last year. We didn't come out with that intensity and that fire.

"With the way we're playing now, I feel like we can overcome that because we have that senior leadership. We have older players. It's just a matter of stepping up and treating every game the same."

Tucker thinks a win at Northwestern (10-6, 0-3) might not prove as much to the nation as a win over an Ohio State or a Marquette, but it will go a long way to proving things within the UW locker room.

"The main thing is for the newer guys, they have to understand that it's serious," Tucker said. "This is a big game for us, because if we lose this it erases everything we've done.

"So you have to be prepared. And I think we've done a great job this year of being prepared – coming out every game with the same mind frame."

To succeed, the No. 3 Badgers (16-1) will need to improve on what they were able to do last year – which of course is something they have done all this season. Wisconsin has not got itself to the free throw line in Evanston the way it has against other schools.

This season the Badgers have made more free throws than their opponents have even attempted. To do that Saturday, UW will need to be active away from the ball and make sure to touch the post and not settle for perimeter rotation against the zone.

"Movement – a lot of movement," stressed Joe Krabbenhoft. "I feel like we've learned a lot about that. Coach Ryan has really stressed that throughout the off-season – just moving a lot away from the ball."

Tucker added offensive rebounding as a key against the Wildcat zone – something that was pivotal in the second half of Tuesday's win over Ohio State. Northwestern struggles on the boards, getting outrebounded this year by an average of seven per contest.

"Because in most zones if you attack the offensive glass in zones, most guys, they can't get bodies on an offensive player," Tucker said. "So we try to make sure we get second and third opportunities each possession. I think that's the main thing when you're playing a team like Northwestern. With the size that we have now, we're able to do that."

UW coach Bo Ryan was hesitant to give away anything more than the fact that the Badgers need to make shots, which of course when all the offensive complexities are explained is really all that matters. Unlike in the Ohio State game, Tucker expects freshman Jason Bohannon to play a part in that.

Tucker called Bohannon a zone-breaker, alluding to his ability to knock down long-range shots. No matter who it is, the Badgers need to be able to pick their spots well to shoot at a higher clip during this visit.

"The more movement you have, the better shots you're going to get," Taylor said. "And the better chance you're going to have of getting the ball inside. Because you know, Wisconsin basketball, we're trying to get the ball inside so we can draw the foul. And if that's not there they can kick it out for the open shot."

On the other side of the ball, Wisconsin would be wise to keep Northwestern from jumping to an early lead. When Bill Carmody's teams are able to do that, their patience on offense can make a lead seem larger than usual.

"We hate practicing against it on the practice court, and we're like ‘aw, wow, we've got to go up against this again.'" Tucker laughed.

"They're so precise with their cuts," he later added. "Everything is exactly how they draw it up. You have to stay mentally tough because they change speeds well, they'll lull you to sleep and next thing you know they're going 100 miles an hour and the ball is right there for them to meet it. They pass and catch really well, and that's what makes them such a dangerous team."

The Wildcats struggled shooting the ball early in the season but improved during the course of their non-conference stretch. They have dropped their first three to open the Big Ten season, however. And another win over Wisconsin would do much to stop that slide.

"We definitely remember what happened there last year and we're going to use that as motivation if nothing else," Krabbenhoft said. "We can't dwell on it. It's been so long ago. So we've just got to come out and bring it and play hard and have fun."

That way Tucker wouldn't need to strain any facial muscles after the game.

"It's always fun to go away with a win," Tucker said. "It will be exciting to get back home in front of my home fans and you know, they enjoy that and I enjoy it. But it's ultimately the best feeling when you come out with a win."


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