As Wisconsin moves into the critical part of its schedule, the return of a key contributor could provide a big boost down the stretch.
Jon Leuer will be available Thursday night when the No. 14 Badgers visit Minnesota, trying to keep pace with the leaders in the Big Ten standings.
Leuer began practicing this week and has been cleared to return to game action after breaking his left wrist Jan. 9 against Purdue. Coach Bo Ryan has not indicated whether Leuer will play, but the 6-foot-10 forward was optimistic.
“I feel like I’m game-ready right now,” Leuer said Monday. “I’ve been able to work out and run and condition so I feel like I’m in really good shape.”
Leuer, who is from Long Lake, Minn., is averaging 15.4 points and 6.2 rebounds in 16 games. Wisconsin (19-6, 9-4) went 6-3 without its starting forward, but Leuer’s interior presence has been missed, particularly in a home loss to Illinois last week in which the Badgers were limited to just six points in the paint. Wisconsin also has struggled to get to the free throw line without him, averaging 8.8 fewer attempts.
Wisconsin is 1 1/2 games behind Michigan State in the Big Ten, but Illinois is the only one of its final six opponents with a winning record in conference play.
“It’s tough to watch, but I was doing whatever I could to support the guys and they’ve done a great job for the past couple weeks,” Leuer said. “They’ve been fun to watch. … I’m excited to get back and play with them.”
The Badgers are looking to secure their fourth straight 20-win season after moving a step closer with an 83-55 home win over Indiana on Saturday. Wisconsin forced 21 turnovers and Jason Bohannon scored a career-high 30 points, going 7 of 11 from 3-point range.
Bohannon is averaging 20.5 points over the last four games and shooting 51.5 percent from 3-point range.
Although Minnesota is struggling, the Badgers shouldn’t have any problem with overconfidence considering they lost twice to the Golden Gophers last season. Wisconsin shot 33.3 percent in a 51-46 loss at Williams Arena last March.
“Traveling to Minnesota is going to be tough, but we have a few days of practice that we can focus on getting better,” said Bohannon, who was held scoreless in 30 minutes in that loss.
The Badgers will try to hand Minnesota (14-10, 5-7) its third straight loss.
The Golden Gophers have dropped six of eight, including a 77-74 overtime loss at Northwestern on Sunday. They led by 13 points in the second half, but the Wildcats rallied and scored nine straight points in overtime.
“We’ve lost a lot, but this one … wasn’t more tough than the rest of the losses we’ve had,” coach Tubby Smith said. “We’ve had chances. We gave up too many easy baskets, we had defensive breakdowns; I don’t know whether it’s fatigue or what. We just need to be stronger down the stretch.”
Minnesota is one of the highest scoring teams in the Big Ten at 74.5 points per game, but is averaging 65.8 over the last six. Lawrence Westbrook in particular has struggled with his consistency. He leads the team with 13.4 points per game, but entered Saturday scoring 8.7 in his previous three contests.
Westbrook has scored in double figures his last four times facing Wisconsin. He averaged 22.0 points in two games against the Badgers last season.