Unlikely hero Rob Wilson scores 30 to lead Badgers

INDIANAPOLIS – Wilsanity, anyone?

Rob Wilson's 30-point eruption came out of nowhere, and put the Badgers' unsung senior in the spotlight.
(US Presswire)

Just in time for March, college basketball might have its Jeremy Lin. His name is Rob Wilson, and until Friday you’d never heard of him. Now Wilson, a senior guard at Wisconsin who has a career scoring average of 2.4 points per game, is the toast of the Big Ten tournament after dropping a dirty 30 on Indiana on Friday in a 79-71 quarterfinal victory.

His previous career-high was 13, which he achieved two years ago against Michigan. On a fantasy Friday in Bankers Life Fieldhouse, he more than doubled that at the expense of the Hoosiers, who swore they had Wilson scouted but guarded him as if he was a walk-on. Given room to shoot time after time, Wilson tied the tournament record with seven 3-pointers and tied for the seventh-most points scored in a Big Ten tourney game.

“It just felt like the ball was coming off perfectly and the hoop was even bigger than usual,” Wilson said in Wisconsin’s locker room, surrounded by media members for the first time in his life.

Part of the magic of March is its habit of introducing us to unlikely heroes. Wilson has dibs on the unlikeliest 30-point scorer of 2012.

This is a guy who didn’t even play in nine of the Badgers’ last 18 games as a junior, as he meandered in and out of coach Bo Ryan’s good graces. This season, he at least has been on the floor every game, but he failed to score 11 times. That includes three bagels in February before finally starting to find his stroke four games ago.

Wilson scored what was then a season-high 11 at Iowa, then followed that up with nine against Ohio State, four against Minnesota and eight against Illinois. He was coming on – but, honestly, nobody saw this coming.

“I was averaging maybe two, three points a game,” Wilson said. “Who would expect that?”

Almost as unexpected as Wilson’s 30 was seeing Wisconsin score 79. That’s the most the Badgers, who meet Michigan State in one of Saturday’s semifinals, have scored in a Big Ten game since Feb. 6, 2011.

“Every time we were close to getting momentum back our way, they made a big play,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said. “And it was usually Rob Wilson making that play.”

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Here’s the thing about Wilson: He didn’t need an out-of-body, 30-point explosion on national TV to become a hero to one group of people in Wisconsin.

At the Boys & Girls Club in Madison, the kids already idolized him no matter how many points he scored – or, more precisely, didn’t score. They’ve been around him for the past two months, as Wilson has worked an internship there that will complete his degree in human ecology with an emphasis on leadership studies.

Five days a week, Wilson spends the morning at the club learning the business side of the operation. Then he reports to the Kohl Center for practice at 1 p.m. When practice is over, he often returns to the Boys & Girls Club to interact with the children.

Wilson and fellow senior Jordan Taylor now turn their focus to a semifinal against Michigan State.
(US Presswire)

“The kids watched him play today and they were so excited for him,” Boys & Girls Club chief executive officer Michael Johnson told Yahoo! Sports by phone Friday. “They just went absolutely crazy. Maybe some of the practice he’s done here with the kids paid off.”

As a kid growing up in a single-parent home in Cleveland, Wilson spent a lot of time at the Boys & Girls Club. So he has an appreciation for what the clubs do for young people – and knows how much impact a role model can make on their lives.

“It couldn’t happen to a nicer person than Rob Wilson,” chief operating officer John Suggs said. “He does really good work here.”

Wisconsin’s staff believes Wilson’s improving play is a result of confidence gained working at the Boys & Girls Club, where he’ll undoubtedly be treated to a royal reception Monday when he gets back to his internship after the Big Ten tourney.

Wilson predicted a less-laudatory reception from his mom, Deborah. She was watching from home in Cleveland, and in the locker room, Rob anticipated he’d have a text or voice message from her when he checked his phone.

“She’ll give me the ‘Good game’ and the ‘I love you,’ but she’ll also say, ‘Go out there and do it again,’ ” Wilson said. “She’s always wanting me to do better.”

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Wilson is doing pretty well for himself these days. In addition to the Boys & Girls Club work, he is Wisconsin’s recipient of the Big Ten Sportsmanship Award, which is for distinguished behavior and good academic standing. He is on track to become the first member of his family to earn a college degree.

But basketball is his passion. A tattoo on his arm reads, “Love for the game,” and he means it. Even though his college career has not led to much individual glory until now, he’s hardly bitter about any unrealized dreams.

“I never felt down,” he said. “Always believed in myself.”

The Hoosiers certainly are believers. As are the Badgers, who might have Wilsanity on their hands if their previously anonymous backup guard can bottle the March Magic he found Friday against Indiana.

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Pat Forde is Yahoo! Sports’ national college columnist. He is an award-winning writer, author and commentator with 25 years experience in newspapers and online. Follow him on Twitter. Send Pat a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Mar 9, 2012