"It's just like a game, you play well for 35 minutes and now you've got to finish," associate head coach Greg Gard said. "They're at the point where they need to make the free throws at the end of the game and finish this semester strong."
If not dealt with properly, first-semester finals have played a key factor in derailing the progress of a productive first half. Opening the 2005-06 season a surprising 14-2 overall and 4-0 in the Big Ten, the Badgers were in good spirits until sophomore Greg Stiemsma and freshman Marcus Landry were both ruled academically ineligible for the spring semester.
Without Stiemsma (who was battling depression) and Landry (who was balancing basketball and fatherhood), UW dropped 10 of its final 15 games, a season that serves as a history lesson for current Badgers to take note of.
"Finals can be tough without good time management," UW junior Tim Jarmusz. "When you are studying for a test, make sure you are focused on studying for a test and not thinking about the game. When you are at practice, don't think about the test and just play basketball and have fun."
It's been mostly fun and games throughout 10 non-conference games this season for Wisconsin. The Badgers (8-2), picked anywhere from seventh to ninth in the Big Ten, are tied for third in the loss column behind undefeated Purdue (10-0) and surprising Northwestern (9-1).
Wisconsin has registered wins over the ACC (Duke and Maryland), Big East (Marquette) and the Pac 10 (Arizona) thanks to a starting five that includes two seniors (Jason Bohannon and Trevon Hughes) and three juniors (Tim Jarmusz, Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil) that know what it takes to win.
"The biggest thing is maturity and guys understanding what it's about, guys that have improved from year one to year two or year two to year three and so forth," Gard said. "We also found some depth on the bench that allows us to get some guys into the mix."
That mix of a starting lineup that boasts three players averaging over 10 points per game and a bench that is outscoring opponents 179-to-138 has UW averaging 73.5 points per game, including topping the 70-point plateau seven times (six straight).
Not only is UW averaging 9.7 points per game more than last season, the Badgers have turned the ball over just 10.9 times per game, a mark that ranked then in the top 20 nationally.
"We have guys that are unselfish and smart players that make good reads," Leuer said. "Anytime you play with guys like that, you're going to get good shots. It's just a matter of capitalizing and knocking shots down. We've been able to do that, pound the ball inside a little more this year and that takes pressure off the guards."
While the offense has taken off, the defense has shut down paint and opposing offenses, allowing opponents to score only 60 points per game. Out rebounding eight of 10 opponents and averaging 4.4 (34.7 to 30.3) more rebounds per game than its opponents this season, UW has owns the paint, especially in its upset-win over Duke, being the only team to outrebound the Blue Devils this season.
"Wisconsin basketball is predicated off getting the ball inside a getting something out of it when we get the ball in the post," Leuer said. "It was a point of emphasis to get stronger and being more physical down low. That hard work is paying off right now."
With in-state rival Milwaukee coming in Wednesday and fellow Horizon League foe Illinois-Chicago wrapping up UW's non-conference schedule on Sunday, the Badgers have two more games to get the formula right before wounded Ohio State opens UW's conference play in Madison on New Year's Eve.
With an A-minus so far through the midterm, Wisconsin knows what it needs to do in order to get an A on the final exam.
"We just need to play more consistent, and that's whether you win or lose because you always find things out that you didn't do well," Gard said. "There were things we didn't do well against Duke, Green Bay and Marquette and there are things we did very well in all three games. You have to be consistent, because you are always going to get people's best shot."