Although UW's engine was stuck in neutral at times, the Badgers' offense is starting to rev its motor with a ranked Ohio State squad first on the conference docket. Getting double-digit point efforts from five sources, Wisconsin closed out its non-conference schedule by easily beating UIC, 79-43, Sunday afternoon at the Kohl Center.
"I feel like we are well prepared, but we are trying to get better and still improving, as is any team at this point," said senior Jason Bohannon, who scored all of his 15 points from three-point range. "It's still late December, but we want to get where we want to be at the end of March. We feel we can get a lot better and we are striving for that every day."
One of those players striving to get better is junior Jon Leuer. Spending the off season diligently trying to fine tune parts of his game, Leuer continued to provide the scoring, recording a game-high 17 points, but this time created opportunities for his teammates. Leuer added a career-best five assists, more than his last five games combined.
"We have some pretty good shooters on this team that can really spread the defense," Leuer said.
Added UW coach Bo Ryan: "That's all part of him maturing as a player. When one part of the game is taken away, Jon understands that somebody else has to be open. He found guys ... from the post."
UW (10-2) came up empty on five of its first six possessions, including two turnovers that caused Ryan to start searching for options on his bench just 1 minute, 18 seconds into the game and continuing throughout the half, trying to find some rhythm after a sleep walking through the first eight minutes.
"A couple of the mistakes we had were pretty bad," said sophomore Jordan Taylor, who rebounded from a sloppy first half in terms of ball handling to chip in with 11."(Ryan) expects better from us and we expect better from ourselves. It's no surprise that if we're not getting our job done, somebody else comes in to try and help."
One of those bench players Ryan called upon was Rob Wilson, who entered Sunday averaging only 8.9 minutes, 3 points and .9 rebounds per game. Wilson was vital in his 11 first-half minutes, grabbing six rebounds – he finished with eight to establish a new career high – and a steal.
In addition to Taylor's 11, UW got 10 bench points from freshman Ryan Evans, helping Wisconsin to a 27-6 advantage from the reserves.
"Rob knows when he gets on the court, he contributes, just like every other guy that gets on the floor," Ryan said. "That's all we ask for, just the toughness and knowing the type of teams we are getting into (that) the bodies are still physical. The Big Ten is still the Big Ten and Rob has to be that type of player to be more aggressive as a player, whether it's for five minutes or 15 minutes … He's shown a couple things here, especially on the glass. He's been very aggressive."
Those contributions helped UW shoot 46 percent in the opening half, limited the Flames (3-8) to only eight buckets and 19 points and score 13 points off 10 UIC turnovers. The only real highlight for the Flames was Robo Kreps hitting a three-pointer near midcourt at the buzzer to make it a 35-19 deficit.
Kreps, UIC's leading scorer, finished with a team-high 13 points, but UIC couldn't make a serious push, especially with the Badgers out rebounding the Flames 40-19, which resulted to a 26-18 scoring advantage in the paint and 20-2 mark on second chance points.
"In the famous words of Dennis Green, ‘they were who we thought they were," said UIC coach Jimmy Collins, as his team was limited to 36 percent shooting. "They are a good team, no question about it. They are very polished. You start (guarding) one, then the other one strikes fire."
The second half was a mere formality, but helped UW put up some gaudy numbers, shooting 51.8 percent against the Horizon Leagues top field goal percentage defense, including 11-of-23 from three-point range.
Hughes also started to regain a snippet of his swagger, faking a behind the back pass on a 2-on-1 break, causing the defender to stutter step and giving him an alley to bank in a layup, pushing UW's lead to 65-35 with 5:30 to go. Hughes finished with 12 as UW extinguished the Flames by pushing its lead as high as 38 points and getting set for the Buckeyes.
"We've got a good game against Ohio State coming on New Year's Eve," Bohannon said. "Ohio State is a very good team. Ohio State, they are a Big Ten conference team and you've always got to come ready to play. We've had some good battles over the years with them."