Wisconsin has cleared a pair of its biggest hurdles, twice beating top 10 opponents and knocking off an unbeaten foe in its last game.
The team’s toughest challenge, however, is yet to come.
The 13th-ranked Badgers must move on without perhaps their most important player, as forward Jon Leuer begins his recovery from a broken wrist while Wisconsin visits Northwestern on Wednesday night.
Leuer’s emergence has been one of the biggest reasons the Badgers (13-3, 3-1 Big Ten) have exceeded expectations this season, with the 6-foot-10 junior ranking among the league’s top 10 with 15.4 points per game and leading Wisconsin with 6.2 rebounds.
He suffered the injury early in a 73-66 victory over the then-No. 4 Boilermakers on Saturday, still playing most of the game but scoring a season-low four points on 2-of-15 shooting. An X-ray revealed the fracture, although it’s uncertain how long Leuer will be out.
“I was an economics major and I really would have a tough time giving you anything. I wouldn’t have a clue,” Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. “They don’t tell us anything other than what you saw (in the university release). That’s all the information I get.
“Is it going to be easy? No. Are we going to whine about it? No, that’s not allowed.”
It’s unclear how Wisconsin will replace Leuer in the starting lineup, but the Badgers will certainly hope for some more strong guard play after their backcourt sparked the win over the Boilermakers.
Sophomore guard Jordan Taylor scored a career-high 23 points off the bench, while starter Jason Bohannon matched a season high with 20. Leading scorer Trevon Hughes went 3 of 3 from the field and 6 of 6 from the free-throw line, finishing with 14 points.
“I believe in our guys. They’ll go toe-to-toe with anybody, anytime,” Ryan said after the game. “We beat a good team, we beat a very good team.”
Wisconsin also knocked off then-No. 6 Duke last month, but that and the Purdue game were part of the Badgers’ 10-0 start at home. They are 1-2 on the road, including a 54-47 loss to then-No. 10 Michigan State last Wednesday, and went 3-6 in Big Ten road games in 2008-09.
While the Badgers are 10-4 against Northwestern under Ryan, they are 3-4 in Evanston during that stretch, dropping the most recent meeting between the teams 66-63 there Jan. 31. The Wildcats shot 57.1 percent from the field, second highest for a Wisconsin opponent last season.
Northwestern (12-3, 1-2) has fallen out of the rankings after making its first appearance in more than 40 years last month, but the Wildcats are coming off their first Big Ten victory, 68-62 at Michigan on Sunday.
Coach Bill Carmody’s team erased a 17-point first-half deficit, led by freshman guard Drew Crawford, who finished with 25. Crawford was 7 of 9 from the field and 4 of 5 from 3-point range.
Crawford and junior Michael Thompson provide a potent backcourt combination for Northwestern, injecting some athleticism into the Wildcats and supplementing sophomore forward John Shurna’s team-leading 17.5 points per game.
“Northwestern’s been doing so many things in a more athletic way this year,” Ryan said. “As a few of my buddies said, ‘Hey, coach, you’re now the 11th athletic team in the league. Northwestern passed you this year.’”
The Badgers continue to rely on staunch defense, holding their four conference opponents to a Big Ten-low 52.3 points per game. Northwestern has allowed a league-high 80.7 points in Big Ten play.