As the Wisconsin men's basketball team continues its history-making campaign – the best start in UW history and its highest ranking ever – nearly every game is proving something new about the maturation of a team with high potential.
While Alando Tucker and Kammron Taylor have been the foundation, their teammates are increasingly providing critical support in tight spots. Starters Brian Butch and Michael Flowers have been a couple of those players, but again on Saturday it was Marcus Landry who came off the bench in a 56-50 win at Northwestern and made his presence felt late in crunch time.
"We've been a part of a lot of close games this year," Taylor said. "Everybody's maturing. Everybody's older on the court. And again one of our younger guys stepped up in Marcus Landry. I mean, he played another great game."
Despite receiving his share of second-half jeers from the Northwestern crowd after a scuffle with Vince Scott, Landry played larger than his height.
He did his scoring in the first half – all eight points. But his defense down the stretch – including three blocks – allowed No. 3 Wisconsin (17-1, 3-0) to play small and quick without feeling as if they lost the height of Butch, Jason Chappell or Greg Stiemsma.
Landry put it somewhat humorously, noting perhaps without realizing it that he was trying to limit their motion inside by getting them to kick it to the perimeter for outside shots. But then he also blocked two 3-pointers, which discouraged Northwestern (10-7, 0-4) from shooting those as well, he said.
"It's just a sign that I'm doing the right things," Landry said of being in another road game in the critical minutes. "I'm doing the right things to be on the floor at that time."
The man he is learning from, his roommate Tucker, was to the offensive end during crunch time what Landry was to the defensive side - a playmaker.
Tucker scored just two points in the opening half, but after he was hacked in the paint with 10:04 remaining, two free throws began a stretch in which he scored 11 of Wisconsin's next 15 points. Tucker finished with 17 points and a game-high eight rebounds.
There was his patent off-balance midrange jumper to give Wisconsin a 43-42 lead it would not surrender. There was an offensive board and baseline 3-pointer off a subsequent timeout. But the play that really brought the Wisconsin half of the house down came as Tucker forcefully crashed near the baseline and leapt high enough to mimic a full bicycle motion jump as he banked it in off the glass.
And of course there was the now inevitable big Tucker dunk.
"What happened with Alando was, he was a step behind on his reads of open areas, cuts, short corners," said UW coach Bo Ryan. "And then he finally figured out – or maybe they changed a little – he finally figured out separation, the gaps. And those are things you can talk about, but until the defense gets out there and does what they do, it's a chess match and you have to be ready to counter."
Wisconsin trailed 26-24 at the break after uncharacteristically turning the ball over, not blocking out and falling asleep on an inbounds play in the half's final two minutes. Northwestern ended the half on an 8-0 run, and shy of some success in the paint with Landry and Butch – who combined for 17 points before halftime – the offense struggled with the Wildcats' alternating zones.
The Badgers never found a flow, according to Tucker.
"The first half I was trying to observe, but I wasn't in the flow of the game," he said about his own performance.
But the veteran leader told his teammates in the locker room that they had endured the worst half they could possibly play and still trailed by just two points.
"One of the things – we stayed focused," Tucker said. "Regardless of the turnovers, we said, ‘Hey.' We weren't going to try to rush it. And after a turnover a lot of times in the past we'd come down and try to – with a lead like that they had on us – we'd try to force it all in one play."
Instead, the Badgers were patient. Last year the team was in a close game in the second half at Welsh-Ryan, but forced bad shots and settled around the perimeter. The Wildcats opened up a run and ultimately won by 11 points in that one. But this Badger team was more active.
"Last year we got in the same situation and we did not respond the same way," Ryan said. "Now another year older and guys figured a few things out. Our experience paid off."
For the second straight game it was Taylor who got sent to the free throw line repeatedly to clinch the victory. This time he attempted seven in a row, making four of them. But the biggest two came after Taylor heaved up an off-balance shot in the paint and fought to secure his own rebound and convert from the charity stripe after a foul. That made it a two-possession game at 54-50.
"I wanted to redeem myself," said Taylor, who scored 12 points on 3-of-12 shooting. "I'm all about trying to help the team win. And I didn't play that well today as a whole. But you know, I just try to step up when they need me the most."
And while Northwestern is winless in the Big Ten and expected to finish near the bottom of the conference, this game was about Taylor, Tucker and the other veterans proving something to themselves – that they could overcome the challenges that have bewildered them in Evanston.
"Yeah, to a certain extent, yes, definitely," said Tucker. "I proved something to myself and my team showed me something. We stayed together and was able to pull this game away towards the end. In the years past this was a Northwestern victory if we would have played like that – 20 turnovers. This was a Northwestern victory. But for us to come out there and leave with the win, it shows me a lot."
Last year, Taylor struggled equally from the field and Tucker was also kept in check. This time they turned it on at the right time, and much of that could have to do with the fact that this is a deeper and a complete team – whoever is helping to step up.
As to how good the team thinks it is after this week, however, Tucker said they could be very good, but put the emphasis on the "could." His coach, on the other hand, isn't willing to share yet.
"Call me when you turn your income tax in," Ryan told a reporter after the game. "On April 15th, give me a call."