Worgull: Big Men, Small Steps

The critics say Wisconsin is doomed without Brian Butch and that it's not a question of if, but when will Wisconsin hit the wall. If the big men performed like they did on Friday, no wall is strong enough to stop the Badgers.

CHICAGO – Ever since Brian Butch went down with a potential season-ending elbow injury two games ago, so-called experts began questioning how the Badgers are going to suffer, falter and end up struggling in the paint down the post-season stretch.

Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan has heard what the critics have said and, quite frankly, he's not buying into their stock.

"There isn't a team in Division One that can't beat us," Ryan explained. "To say that because of an injury we aren't a good a team [anymore]. I thought you had to wait and see a team play a few times. We miss Brian, but to all of a sudden to hear that conversation about us not being that good of team, watch us play a few games first.

"I think those [big] guys made a pretty good statement."

Without Butch, senior Jason Chappell and sophomores Kevin Gullikson, Joe Krabbenhoft, Marcus Landry and junior Greg Stiemsma have seen their minutes increase, their importance increase and, on Friday against Michigan State, saw their production increase.

While Chappell, Gullikson and Landry contributed by eating up minutes and making limited mistakes, the play of Krabbenhoft and Stiemsma against the big men of Michigan State was a huge factor in Wisconsin's 13-point victory over Michigan State.

While his rebounding wasn't as solid or productive as some of his other games, Krabbenhoft did his best Butch imitation by knocking down the outside jumper. Having his best shooting game of the season, Krabbenhoft shot 4-for-6 from the field and hit his seventh three-point bucket of the season, finishing with nine points in 17 solid minutes on the floor.

Stiemsma, on the other hand, filled up every category on the stat sheet. The junior scored six points, grabbed two boards and notched an assist. However, it was his four blocks and tough defense in the paint was what gave his teammates a boost.

"Greg is getting a little more comfortable," Ryan said. "Moving his feet well, positioned himself well and this is a good opportunity for him."

"They stepped up and answered," Tucker said. "It's a sad thing losing Brian, but I knew in the back of my mind, these guys are ready to set up and play. The more minutes these guys get, the more comfortable they are going to be."

According to the big men, the offensive success they experienced tonight stemmed directly from the Big Ten Player of the Year, Alando Tucker. In addition to dropping a game-high 21 points, 18 of which came after halftime, it was Tucker's team-high four assists, one of which was an alley-oop dunk to Stiemsma, that led to the production of Wisconsin's frontcourt.

"I just tried to be active," Stiemsma said. "We knew it was going to be physical inside and on the boards. We knew they were going to put pressure n Tucker, which opens things up for the rest of us and he's going to find us if we're open."

Everything wasn't perfect in the paint for Wisconsin, however, as the majority of the Spartan's offensive production came from their big men. Of the Spartans' 57 points, 42 points (74 percent) came from their backcourt, including 14 points from Goran Suton. On a night where Spartan scoring threat Drew Neitzel was shut down, the Badgers big guys know that there's room for improvement.

"Our guards did a great job of shutting down their [guards] and I am part of the big man crew now," Krabbenhoft said. "We can't make it easy for them to catch the ball and that's something Wisconsin works on every day in practice. So, it's back to basics on that part. Hopefully, we'll do a better job [tomorrow]."

With Wisconsin matching up against hometown Illinois in the semifinals tonight, the Badger bigs will be able to redeem themselves against Illini frontcourt members Warren Carter and Shaun Pruitt – who combined to score half the team's points in their overtime victory over Indiana.

The only time Wisconsin and Illinois met this season, a January 20th contest in Champaign, Pruitt went on a scoring rampage against the Badger defense, scoring 19 points on seven of 11 shooting in Wisconsin's seven point win.

When asked about the upcoming challenge, Stiemsma simply pointed to the calendar and was relishing another opportunity for the big men to prove that without Butch, there will be no drop off like those so-called critics say.

"I think we definitely want to step up to the challenge and there is no time like March to step up to a challenge," Stiemsma said.

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