February 11, 2013 at 5:26 pm

Matt Charboneau

Badgers claw way into Big Ten title race

There's little doubt the Big Ten is the cream of the crop in college basketball this season. In fact, some think three teams could reach the Final Four in Atlanta.

Michigan and Indiana have taken turns ranked No. 1 this season while Ohio State, Michigan State and Minnesota have spent plenty of time in and around the top 10.

Throw in an impressive early run from Illinois, and the Big Ten has no shortage of teams drawing praise.

All the while, there was one team getting virtually no attention, a team absolutely devoid of a big-time name, flashy uniforms or any sort of hype.

Wisconsin.

Looking at the roster, it should be a surprise that Wisconsin sits one game out of first place. But to anyone who's paid any attention to Big Ten basketball, there is virtually nothing surprising about it.

The Badgers' miracle victory over Michigan on Saturday is just the latest example of how you simply can not count out a team coached by Bo Ryan.

In his 12th season as the Badgers' coach, Ryan has yet to reach a Final Four, but has won three Big Ten titles and has never finished any worse than fourth.

This year's team was supposed to be the one that finally saw the Badgers fall back into the pack. With Jordan Taylor gone, they were supposed to struggle. And early in the season, they did just that.

Tough nonconference losses to Florida and Creighton were followed by a pair of losses to Virginia and Marquette. But when Big Ten play started, Wisconsin knocked off Illinois and went on the road and beat then No. 2-ranked Indiana.

It seemed the Badgers were ready to prove all the doubters wrong. Then they lost at Iowa, got beaten at home by Michigan State, mixed in a win over Minnesota and then lost at Ohio State. It seemed the Badgers were coming back to reality.

But not so fast. After wins over Illinois and Iowa, the Badgers pulled off what might be the most amazing last-second victory in recent memory when Ben Brust hit a half-court shot at the buzzer to force overtime against the Wolverines and then buried a big triple late in overtime to seal the victory.

Wisconsin will never wow you. It has exactly nobody in the top 20 in the conference in scoring and few of its players strike any fear into its opponents.

But the discipline the Badgers show, from Ryan on down, is enough to get the Big Ten to take notice.

"It's a good thing I don't have Twitter or Facebook or anything like that because I'm hearing enough from emails and text messages about, 'You guys aren't that good,'" Ryan said. "It feels good, though. I'm so proud of these guys. This is a group that just finds different ways. They're great to have in practice, too. I mean, they're working it. They're trying."

Next week the Badgers play at Minnesota and host Ohio State, but after that, three straight against Northwestern, Nebraska and Purdue await. Wisconsin closes at Michigan State and Penn State.

With that finish, the possibility exists that Ryan can do it again

The Badgers are still limited, but don't think for one second other teams are taking them lightly at this point. And more importantly for Wisconsin fans, the Badgers themselves aren't either.

"Obviously there's a lot of basketball left to be played," Jared Berggren said. "But I think we've proven that we can beat anyone at any time."

Up-and-down Illini

Speaking of counting teams out, it appears Illinois is not ready to go quietly.

Six losses in seven games had some experts taking the Illini out of the NCAA Tournament, then they went and knocked off No. 1 Indiana on Thursday.

Tyler Griffey broke free for a buzzer-beating layup, sending the Assembly Hall crowd into hysterics and firmly placing the Illini back in the NCAA discussion.

"Some of the things going through my mind are kind of personal in nature," Illinois coach John Groce said of how he felt at the end of the game. "One of them for sure was I was really happy for those guys."

Illinois also has impressive victories over Butler, Gonzaga and Ohio State.

Come tournament time, it's going to be hard for the selection committee to ignore them.

Key games this week

No. 3 Michigan at No. 12 Michigan State, Tuesday: In what is likely to be a battle of top-10 teams for the first time, the hype meter will almost certainly be at an all-time high in this rivalry. The Wolverines will be coming off a crushing loss at Wisconsin and two losses in their last three. The Spartans, on the other hand, have lost only once in their last 10 games..

Wisconsin at No. 18 Minnesota, Thursday: The Badgers will attempt to ride the momentum of their win over Michigan while the Gophers are hoping to continue to right a season that had started to steer off course. The winner stays in the hunt with the stretch drive approaching.

No. 10 Ohio State at Wisconsin, Sunday: The Buckeyes' loss to Indiana sent them two games off the pace but they get a chance to pull closer with a win here. The loser will likely be knocked out of the race, making this game vital as the conference season begins to draw to a close.

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

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Ben Brust, and the Badgers celebrate Brustís 3-pointer that sent Saturdayís game against Michigan to overtime. Wisconsin won. / Andy Manis/Associated Press