Throughout the celebration, trophy presentation and net-cutting after Wisconsin clinched at least a share of the Big Ten title its last time out, the Badgers never forgot that it wasn’t over yet.
“You never want to share anything,” senior Brian Butch said. “That’s never fun.”
The 10th-ranked Badgers can have the Big Ten crown all to themselves on Saturday with a win at Northwestern, which has lost 10 consecutive conference home games.
Wisconsin (25-4, 15-2) hadn’t won a Big Ten regular-season title since 2002-03, but the Badgers clinched at least a share of this season’s championship with their sixth straight win Wednesday, 77-41 over Penn State on senior night at the Kohl Center.
They hold a one-game lead over both Indiana and Purdue heading into the final weekend of the regular season, and need only to beat the last-place Wildcats (8-20, 1-16) to draw the top seed in the Big Ten tournament.
If they lose, they may have to share the title with one or both of the other teams, and could lose the top seed to Purdue.
“You know, we had a great year last year, but we didn’t have anything to show for it,” Butch said. “I’ve been saying that the last couple weeks - this year, at least we have something to show for it so far. And we’ve got a lot of basketball ahead of us, too.”
Last season, the Badgers briefly earned the No. 1 ranking in the nation, but finished second to Ohio State in the league standings, lost to the Buckeyes in the Big Ten tournament championship and fell to UNLV in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Despite losing their top two scorers from that team, the Badgers have rebounded, and Wednesday’s win over Penn State displayed their formula. They used stifling defense to hold the Nittany Lions to 29.6 percent shooting, strong rebounding to grab a 39-25 edge on the boards and balanced scoring with six players scoring between eight and 15 points.
Marcus Landry led Wisconsin with 15 points, while Butch had 12 and senior Greg Stiemsma added 10 points and six rebounds.
“I think it still kind of seems surreal,” Stiemsma said. “To go out like we did, to achieve what we did tonight, I think it’s really special. It’s one of those things where it doesn’t seem like it should happen. I don’t know if it’s fate or whatever it is, but things fell into place for us.”
Very little has fallen in Northwestern’s favor this Big Ten season, as the Wildcats flirted with a winless campaign before a two-point victory at Michigan on Feb. 26. They’ve lost their last two, including 67-62 at home to Iowa on Tuesday, and are just 1-15 at home in Big Ten play the last two seasons.
“The team hasn’t quit all year and when you’ve only won one game in conference, there are a lot of opportunities to,” Northwestern coach Bill Carmody said. “It’s a good bunch of guys and they’re fairly resilient. You’d just like to see them win these close ones, see someone come through with a play.”
Recently, the most likely candidate has seemed to be Kevin Coble. The sophomore forward has scored in double digits in six consecutive games, and had 37 points at home against then-No. 15 Indiana in an 85-82 loss on Feb. 23.
Northwestern lost at Wisconsin 62-50 on Jan. 19, but the Wildcats have had some success against the Badgers at home in recent seasons, winning three of the last five meetings at Welsh-Ryan Arena.