What are they going to do without junior Jon Leuer? How will they pick up his scoring? Rebounding? Height advantage? Leadership? The answer, sophomore Jordan Taylor says, was believing in each other and picking up the fallen junior as a group, not as a bunch of individuals.
So much for the Leuer death sentence that many placed on the Badgers. Since the forward went down seven games ago, No.11 Wisconsin (18-5, 8-3 Big Ten) has gone 5-2, won a pair of road games and throttled then-No.5 Michigan State, keeping them winless at the Kohl Center under Head Coach Bo Ryan.
"I think we're even against Michigan," Taylor chuckled about the improvement in the shooting. "We started the first game 0-of-13 the first time against them and (Saturday), one guy makes shots and then the next guy does and then they start falling. We were getting good looks and guys were knocking them down."
Even Wisconsin's two losses are respectable, as the Badgers couldn't hit the game-winner in a three-point loss at then-No.10 Purdue and ran into a mini buzz saw at revitalized Ohio State. With the Spartans losing their second consecutive game, Wisconsin finds itself one game behind in second place.
"It's a good feeling," Taylor said. "It's anybody's league now. Michigan State has a tough schedule, we have a tough schedule and whoever takes care of business the last seven games is going to be the one who wins it."
After relying on the defense for the majority of the season, the offense has started to shoulder some of the burden for Wisconsin. In Saturday's 62-44 win at Michigan, the Badgers shot 53.7 percent overall (22-of-41) and 52.4 percent from 3-point range (11-of-21) - their first Big Ten game when they shot over 50 percent from 3-point range.
UW's starting guard trio finished 9-of-15 from three-point range (60 percent) and 15-of-23 overall (65.2 percent) to score 44 of the Badgers' 62 points.
Bohannon led the charge with 18 points, but it was the other things he did that made his game impressive. He finished with a career-high five assists, grabbed four rebounds and just one turnover. He also put a cap on Wisconsin's near flawless shooting performance with his 35-foot buzzer-beater from just inside the mid-court stripe that ended the first half.
After being out shot in seven straight games, Wisconsin has shot better than Michigan State and Michigan in two straight games, a significant number, seeing as Wisconsin is 156-10 (10-0 this season) when they shoot a better shooting percentage than their opponent under UW coach Bo Ryan.
"To be able to shoot the ball well puts you in a positive mindset," said Bohannon. "We've shot well before (and) we know how to shoot and stuff. For us to keep shooting and have confidence in it (is big). It's nice when you are (out shooting your opponents), but there's other ways to win basketball games. There's a combination of stuff, and we've found different ways to win."
One of those ways recently has been the defense of junior forward Keaton Nankivil. Against Michigan, Nankivil finished with just nine points and five rebounds, but was part of a defensive effort that limited Michigan's DeShawn Sims to just three second-half points.
Moreover, the Badgers held leading scorer Manny Harris to 11 points on 4-of-14 shooting in both of their victories over the Wolverines, who became the 11th opponent held under 50 points by the Badgers this season, a mark that leads the nation.
"Sometimes in a person's development, you can know that something exists or something that you need to do," Ryan said. "What's going to get us to do it? What's the factor that is going to play the biggest part? You are always learning something … and Keaton is trying to learn quite a few other things. He knows that he has people trying to help him."
Wisconsin has seven games left in the conference season and although it won't play another ranked schedule, the Badgers will have its hands full with Illinois (16-8, 8-3) and junior guard Demetri McCamey, a player assistant coach Gary Close calls one of the strongest guards in the Big Ten.
After losing his starting job earlier in the Big Ten season, McCamey had 22 points on 8-of-12 shooting, including hitting 6-of-9 from beyond the arc, and adding 11 assists in Saturday's home upset against Michigan State, closing out a bad week for the Spartans.
"He's playing great," Close said of McCamey, who leads the team with 15.4 points per game. "He's playing under control, he's finding people, he can score taking it to the hoop, he can shoot three's and he's very strong. He's playing really well. I think he accounts for almost half of their offense in terms of scoring and getting people open and finding people. There is not a guard in the league that is playing any better right now."
McCamey is also a presence defensively, leading the team with 34 steals.
"He's strong, has quick hands and he's physical," Close said. "(Illinois) play(s) defense a lot like Purdue does. They're physical and their guards are long and athletic. That's one reason that teams are not shooting very well from the outside against them."
Having seen the Boilermakers twice already this season (and a Trevon Hughes make from sweeping the season series), the Badgers know the challenge that awaits them Tuesday night.
"We know Illinois is a good team, they're hot right now and McCamery is as good as anybody in the Big Ten and maybe in the country when he's playing his game," Taylor said. "They are a good team … (but) we just have to stick to what we do and we should be all right."