The 23rd-ranked Badgers basketball team plays host to the Wake Forest Demon Deacons in the fourth annual ACC-Big Ten Challenge tonight at 8:30 p.m. CST (ESPN2). Wisconsin (4-0 Overall, 0-0 Big Ten) is playing at the Kohl Center for the first time in the three-year old rivalry after road games the past two years.
The defending Big Ten co-champions have started off the season strong, playing the tough-nosed, in your face, team-dominated defense that led them to the top of the conference a season ago. The Badgers are holding opponents to 41 percent shooting from the field and an average of 58.8 points per game. UW is also paced by sophomore guard Devin Harris' three steals a game, as the team leads the conference with a total of 33 steals (8.3 per game).
Defense does translate into good offense, as Coach Bo Ryan's team is not only outscoring foes by 20.5 points per game, but is also only turning the ball over eight times a contest. This concentration and solid execution on offense is what Ryan attributes to the early success.
"I have a pretty short fuse when it comes to that, and they know that," Ryan said. "The idea is not just to please me, it's also to please your teammates. Take care of the ball, make good decisions, have good balance and good feet and good ball fakes – the things that don't take a lot of talent, the things that everyone can do."
Wake Forest (2-0 Overall, 0-0 ACC) has fallen into the arms of their young guns this season, similar to ACC rivals Duke and North Carolina. After losing five seniors from their NCAA Tournament team last season, the Demon Deacons come into the Kohl Center on Wednesday returning only one starter from last season, senior forward Josh Howard.
But Coach Skip Prosser is impressed by the development of his youthful team through its first two road wins against Yale and Temple.
"We have done a good job sharing the ball," Prosser said. "We make good passes, but [at times] we do not shoot the ball very well. Our team is and will continue to be a work in progress. We're trying to get better every day."
The Deacons are receiving double-digit scoring from four of the starting five, led by Howard's 17 points a game. But the team's success against UW and the rest of the season will be on the shoulders of freshman standout Eric Williams. Williams is a 6-9, 270-pound monster with a lot of talent who will be looking to build a career in the paint.
KEY MATCHUP: WISCONSIN'S KIRK PENNEY VS. WAKE FOREST'S JOSH HOWARD
Senior forward Kirk Penney is not only the leader of the Badgers, but the most skilled player on the UW roster. A killer threat from the perimeter, Penney continues to develop his inside game in order to create more mismatches for opponents. In four games this season, Penney is averaging 19.2 points per game and a scorching 53 percent from three-point range. The Deacon's Josh Howard leads the team in nearly every statistical category and is without a doubt the focal point of the offense. But his defense and rebounding is what separates him from the rest as he averages nearly two blocks and 11 rebounds a game.
THREE KEYS FOR WISCONSIN
1) TEMPO – It's simple. 15-0 under Coach Ryan when team scores at least 70. If the Badgers play their style, execute their suffocating "D" and dictate the tempo of the game, they'll win.
2) TURNOVERS - Leading the conference in fewest turnovers per game last season with 13.3, this season UW is a conference-best 8.8 a game, with a +6.5 turnover margin. As long as the Badgers don't hurt themselves and play clean basketball, chances will be good.
3) KOHL CENTER - UW carries the longest home winning streak in the Big Ten after defeating their last 14 opponents at the Kohl Center. The home crowd will be the seventh man for Ryan's team.
THREE KEYS FOR WAKE FOREST
1) REBOUNDING - The team has the athleticism to possibly have three guys averaging double-digit rebounds by the end of the year – Howard, Williams, and sophomore Vytas Danelius. They'll definitely be hitting the glass.
2) FREE THROWS – The charity stripe will need to be very giving for the Deacons. Wake has outscored its opponents 32-12 at the line thus far this season.
3) NOT SO BIG TEN - The ACC/Big 10 Challenge, which originated during the 2000-01 season, has been a good event for Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons are a perfect 3-0, with wins over Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota.
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