Charboneau: Wisconsin turning its season around

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Wisconsin forward Nigel Hayes, left, reacts after teammate Vitto Brown (30) scored during the second half against Maryland on Saturday in College Park, Maryland.

A few weeks ago, the idea of Wisconsin reaching the NCAA Tournament seemed about as far-fetched as attaining civility at a Republican presidential debate.

On. Jan. 17, the Badgers had lost three straight heading into their home game with Michigan State and had a 1-4 Big Ten record. Add to that a far-from-impressive non-conference resume that included losses to Western Illinois and Milwaukee, and it was no wonder coach Bo Ryan had decided a couple of weeks earlier to step down and hand the team over to top assistant Greg Gard.

That day against the Spartans, however, things started to turn around.

Wisconsin got its biggest win of the season that day, a 77-76 victory over a Michigan State team in the midst of a three-game skid.

But that was just the start. A win over Indiana came the next week followed by a victory at Illinois and two more over Ohio State and Nebraska.

But the true signature was still missing. Gard was building momentum, but the resume was lacking something — for him and for his team’s tournament fate.

Then came Saturday at No. 2 Maryland, a team that hadn’t lost at home since joining the Big Ten last season. All Wisconsin did was lead for nearly the final 30 minutes of the game in a 70-57 victory.

“We’ve been saying that we can play with anybody in the country now for a while,” guard Bronson Koenig told the Wisconsin State Journal. “They beat us on a last-second shot however many weeks ago, but it just shows how much we’ve improved over the past couple weeks.”

That last-second loss to Maryland at home was like a lot of Wisconsin’s — they were all close. The four conference losses have come by a total of 15 points, and while at the time the Badgers looked like a team struggling to find its way after two straight Final Four appearances, it turns out it was just taking time for things to come together for a new-look team.

Nigel Hayes has been solid, just as expected, and is averaging 17.1 points and 5.8 rebounds a game. Koenig has had his moments, as well. But the emergence of redshirt freshman Ethan Happ — he hit the winner vs. Michigan State — and junior Vitto Brown have been vital as Wisconsin has adjusted to life without the likes of Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, Josh Gasser and Traevon Jackson.

Brown has scored in double figures in three straight games, including 21 against Maryland.

Matt Charboneau�s Big Ten Power Rankings

And while the Badgers are grabbing hold of a tournament spot and keeping the pressure on in the Big Ten, they’ll keep moving forward the same way they have the last few weeks. If they do that, another top-four finish in the conference is likely, and few teams will want to see Wisconsin in the postseason.

“Our goals are still the same,” Hayes said. “I’ve tried to stress that to the guys. We’re not worried about Mr. Lunardi’s bracketology, whatever he’s got going on. We’re just trying to make sure that we get better each and every game.”

Tournament run

The last time Ohio State didn’t make the NCAA Tournament, the Buckeyes marched all the way to a championship in the National Invitation Tournament.

That is hardly the goal in Columbus, and even with a young team that has had its share of ups and downs, reaching the NCAA Tournament for an eighth straight year is what the Buckeyes are shooting for. Taking care of business the past week was a key step as Ohio State beat Northwestern and Rutgers.

Neither were terribly impressive, but for a team scrapping for every victory, it was important.

“We know we've got to keep chipping away every day in practice and if we keep having good practices we obviously need to translate it over to the game,” sophomore guard Kam Williams said.

“It's a game-by-game mentality. We can't look to a game two weeks ahead.”

The Buckeyes (16-10, 8-5) will have their challenges with two games against Michigan State, and visits from Iowa and Michigan. A trip to Nebraska is in there as well.

It provides opportunity, but coach Thad Matta knows it will take more than what the Buckeyes gave the past week.

“I'm not taking anything away from the win,” he said, “but as we always talk about, we want to raise the bar every time we take the court.”

White hot

Finding any consistency this season for Nebraska is difficult. The Cornhuskers have had some good wins — beating Michigan State on the road stands out — but they have been all over the map in conference play.

They’d lost four of five entering Saturday’s game with Penn State.

What they haven’t had to worry about is the play of junior forward Andrew White III. The transfer from Kansas scored a career-high 35 against Penn State, going 11-for-17 from the field, including 6-for-10 from 3-point range.

“I didn't want to make any excuses coming into this game,” said White, who had a cold and an ear infection.

"When your leader goes down, you can't go down with the sniffles.”

That leader is Shavon Shields, who is still out with a concussion. White, who is averaging 17.6 points and 6.1 rebounds, has picked up the slack.

“I just said, ‘Drew, this is why we recruited you — this game, this moment. We need you,’” coach Tim Miles said.

“He probably could have scored as many as I would have dialed up for him. We really needed that. He was a real shot in the arm.”

Big Ten rankings

■1. Iowa (20-5, 11-2): The Hawkeyes got a break from the schedule makers and came off their loss at Indiana with a home date on Sunday night against winless Minnesota. Challenges await, however, as Iowa tries to avoid any late-season upsets and capture the regular-season championship.

■2. Wisconsin (16-9, 8-4): The Badgers might not be the second-best team from the start of the season, but they sure are right now. It’s hard to ignore seven straight wins, especially when one comes at Maryland. The Badgers continue a tough stretch at Michigan State on Thursday.

■3. Michigan State (21-5, 8-5): The Spartans nearly pulled off a huge comeback at Purdue before losing in overtime but bounced back in impressive fashion by blowing out Indiana. The final five games give MSU a good shot at finishing strong.

■4. Maryland (22-4, 10-3): The Terrapins continue to get plenty of love from the national pollsters, however they have yet to impress and are no longer perfect at home in Big Ten play after losing to Wisconsin. Road games with Purdue and Indiana are still to come.

■5. Indiana (20-6, 10-3): The Hoosiers had a big win over Iowa this week, but they’ve lost two of three with a loss at Penn State and Sunday’s blowout loss at Michigan State. The Hoosiers have a tough slate left with Purdue and Maryland at home and a trip to Iowa still on tap.

■6. Purdue (20-6, 8-5): The Boilermakers showed resolve in holding off a furious rally from Michigan State early in the week but fell flat at Michigan on Saturday. They have a rivalry game at Indiana next weekend and still get a visit from Maryland and Wisconsin.

■7. Michigan (19-7, 9-4): The Wolverines bounced back with a two-win week, including a signature win over Purdue. It remains difficult down the stretch, however. But if Michigan can get another win over the likes of Maryland, Wisconsin or Iowa, it will be in solid shape heading to the postseason.

■8. Ohio State (16-10, 8-5): After losing two straight, the Buckeyes took care of business and picked up needed victories over Northwestern and Rutgers. Two games with Michigan State and a visit from Iowa are still up as the Buckeyes try and make a run for the NCAA Tournament.

■9. Northwestern (17-9, 5-8): After losing five straight, the Wildcats have won two of three, including a close win at home over Illinois. The NCAA Tournament is still out there for the Wildcats, and they’ll have a good opportunity this week with games against Purdue and Michigan.

■10. Nebraska (14-12, 6-7): The Cornhuskers have now won two of three after Andrew White III scored a career-high 35 against Penn State. Nebraska is hoping to avoid playing in the first day of the Big Ten tournament and a solid close to the regular-season should assure that.

■11. Penn State (12-13, 3-9): The Nittany Lions were unable to build off the upset win over Indiana and came up short at Nebraska. There are winnable games left, however, as Penn State looks to get out of the first day of play at the conference tournament.

■12. Illinois (11-14, 3-9): The only win in the last five games for the Illini came at winless Rutgers, and that was in triple overtime. Little is going right in Champaign as Illinois lost at Northwestern over the weekend and still has games with Wisconsin, Indiana and Maryland down the stretch.

■13. Minnesota (6-19, 0-13): The Golden Gophers are still hunting for that first victory, one that might come next weekend with a visit from Rutgers. Other than that, the best chance might be the season finale at Rutgers.

■14. Rutgers (6-19, 0-12): Another team trying to find just one conference victory, the Scarlet Knights at least have two games left with Minnesota. Penn State and Northwestern are possibilities, but it’s not likely Rutgers finds much success down the stretch.