Amazingly enough, the last team unbeaten in Big Ten play isn't one of them.
Traevon Jackson (USA Today Sports Images)Wisconsin, which looked like it would be lucky to make the NCAA tournament mere weeks ago, has ridden an out-of-nowhere seven-game win streak into first place in its conference. The Badgers validated their recent progress Tuesday night by taking down the only other Big Ten team yet to lose in league play, knocking off second-ranked Indiana 64-59 in front of a stunned crowd at Assembly Hall in Bloomington.
The victory by Wisconsin was its 11th in a row over Indiana, but this one carried more significance than most of the others. Whereas the Hoosiers were rebuilding throughout most of that win streak, this year they have elite talent at every position, an enthusiastic home crowd behind them and the security of knowing they had only lost one game at Assembly Hall the past years prior to Tuesday.
Few would have given Wisconsin much chance of finishing off the upset when Indiana ripped off a 10-1 second-half run and held the Badgers without a field goal for seven minutes to trim a 10-point deficit to one with four minutes to go. The crowd was roaring, the Hoosiers were clamping down on defense and a suddenly ragged Badgers attack finally appeared to be suffering from not having a true point guard to create off the dribble in late-clock situations.
Then, just as it seemed Wisconsin was going to crumble, the Badgers responded with a flurry of big baskets to regain momentum.
Guard Ben Brust grabbed the long rebound of an off-target Jared Berggren desperation 3-pointer and buried a short-corner mid-range jumper. Ryan Evans sank an extremely difficult turnaround 18 footer at the shot clock buzzer with Victor Oladipo draped all over him. And Traevon Jackson drilled a confident jump shot with 2:25 to play, forcing Indiana to call timeout and giving the Badgers the cushion they needed to close out the win.
That Wisconsin showed so much poise and toughness in a hostile environment probably comes as a surprise to anyone who observed the Badgers' road futility in non-league play.
At Florida on Nov. 14, they barely put up a fight, falling 74-56. At rival Marquette four weeks later, they weren't much better, shooting a dreadful 32.7 percent and trailing the entire game en route to a 60-50 loss.
Why has Wisconsin fared better in Big Ten play, especially in marquee wins over Illinois and Indiana the past two games? Well, as usual for a Bo Ryan-coached team, it starts on the defensive end.
Wisconsin's offensive efficiency has actually tapered off a bit in league play as a result of far stiffer competition, but its defense has improved statistically.
Illinois' typically potent perimeter attack shot 35.3 percent from the field and 2 of 14 from behind the arc. Indiana's formidable offense managed only 37 percent, with Jordan Hulls unable to shake free of Brust for open perimeter looks, Oladipo uncharacteristically quiet and the bench only chipping in two points. Even Cody Zeller, who scored 18 first-half points, managed only five after halftime thanks to more frequent double and triple teams whenever he got the ball in the paint.
On the offensive end, increased contributions from promising freshman Sam Dekker and sophomore guard Traevon Jackson have helped. Dekker scored in double figures both of the past two games, while Jackson followed up a career-high 14-point performance against Illinois with 11 Tuesday, suggesting he may now be ready to take advantage of increased playing time available to him as a result of Josh Gasser's season-ending knee injury.
If Jackson can solidify the point guard position and Dekker can bolster an already deep, powerful frontcourt, then Wisconsin has a chance to not just make the NCAA tournament but hold its own against some of the Big Ten's other stalwarts.
A month ago, it seemed far-fetched to think Wisconsin could extend Bo Ryan's streak of finishing in the top four in the Big Ten every season during his tenure. Seven wins later, however, it doesn't seem so unrealistic anymore.
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