January 14, 2013 at 9:55 am

Matt Charboneau

Wisconsin surges to the top again after subpar nonconference start

Ben Brust and the Badgers will see if they are for real when they play Indiana on Tuesday. (Andy Manis/Associated Press)

Everyone is familiar with the talk surrounding the Big Ten this season.

It's the best conference in college basketball, by far, and home to arguably to two of the best teams in the country. Six teams are ranked in the Associated Press Top 25.

But one team that's proving to be a surprise should really be no surprise at all.

Wisconsin.

That's right, the team that was supposed to struggle this season, while trying to replace Jordan Taylor, a two-time All-Big Ten player. Oh, and the team with a coach that does nothing but win, regardless of who is wearing the red and white uniform.

Bo Ryan is in his 12th season as head coach of the Badgers and he's failed to win 20 games once. He's never finished lower than fourth in the Big Ten and has won the conference championship three times.

And after an absolute thrashing of No. 12 Illinois on Saturday, is anybody wondering if Ryan won't have his Badgers right in the thick of the race again this season?

"I thought that they dominated every facet of the game, especially in the first half," Illinois coach John Groce said. "Their competitive spirit was better than ours to start the game. That is unacceptable."

Ryan has never had the best players, never had the marquee names, never had the flashy highlight reel. It's no different this season. Jared Berggren is the Badgers' top scorer, but he's barely in the top 15 in the conference at 13.4 points a game.

What Ryan does have are teams that are efficient, play great defense, and basically drive their opponents crazy.

That competitive spirit is never lacking in Madison and it relates directly to Ryan, who is in the midst of yet another outstanding coaching job.

The Badgers were 9-4 entering the Big Ten season, losing to Florida and Creighton early. There's little shame in those losses, but non-conference defeats against Virginia and Marquette had many shaking their heads over what might be in store this season.

However, here we are a couple of weeks into Big Ten play and Wisconsin sits at the top.

Sure, two wins came against Penn State and Nebraska, but the win over Illinois reminded everyone the day they take Wisconsin lightly is the day they go home with a loss.

Much bigger tests await, beginning with Tuesday at fifth-ranked Indiana.

And more performances like the one against the Illini, and the measure of surprise surrounding this team will continue to diminish.

"(Illinois is) as well as we've played probably for a total of 40 minutes against that caliber of team," Ryan said. "What you have to do is know that tomorrow we're practicing for next. That's how short-lived a victory like this could be."

Indiana's high expectations

If there was any wonder how much things have changed at Indiana this season, just check out the reaction after Saturday's 88-81 victory over No. 8 Minnesota.

There was no joy, no elation for a victory over a top-10 team. It was more relief from a team shooting for nothing less than a national championship.

"The difference now is that a year ago we would have been ecstatic with that victory," coach Tom Crean said. "I want them to enjoy it. But we have different expectation levels now and it's the expectation level from inside."

The relief was easy to understand considering the Hoosiers came seconds from blowing a 23-point halftime lead, needing a late tip and offensive rebound to help clinch the win.

After Jordan Hulls , a career 88 percent free-throw shooter, missed two free throws while Indiana clinged to a three-point lead, Cody Zeller batted the rebound to Hulls, who was fouled again, and this time, made both shots to ice the game.

"That's when you know you're living right," Crean said.

Good teams make those types of breaks, and considering the way the Hoosiers talked afterward, they are far from satisfied.

"We have a lot of room for improvement," Crean said.

Added Hulls, "We just have to do a better job of playing the full game."

None of that is good news for the rest of the Big Ten.

Key games

Wisconsin at No. 5 Indiana, Tuesday: Each team has yet to lose in conference play, so something has to give in this one. The Badgers were outstanding against Illinois but have had trouble consistently scoring. It will take a monumental defensive effort from Wisconsin to slow Indiana, which has the benefit of playing at home.

No. 2 Michigan at No. 8 Minnesota, Thursday: It's the last of a brutal three-game stretch for Minnesota which resulted in a win at Illinois and a tough loss at Indiana. A victory here would be 100 percent proof the Gophers are for real. Michigan, on the other hand, will have to bounce back after its first loss of the season.

No. 15 Ohio State at No. 22 Michigan State, Saturday: The Spartans should be coming into this rematch of last season's Big Ten tournament title game fresh and it will be their first chance to prove they belong in the conference race after dropping their opener at Minnesota. Ohio State gets six days off after its upset of Michigan.

mcharboneau@detnews.com

twitter.com/mattcharboneau