Charboneau: Wisconsin flashes winning formula

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News


Nigel Hayes

With Big Ten play just a couple of weeks from tipping off it’s getting a little bit easier to forecast the teams to beat once conference play dominates the winter months.

And it should be no surprise that Wisconsin is proving to be near the front of the pack.

One of the most experienced teams in the Big Ten, led by preseason player of the year Nigel Hayes, the Badgers have overcome some early-season losses in marquee games to win five straight, including one-sided wins over Syracuse and Oklahoma, before rallying to beat Marquette on Saturday.

Their 58-point second half against Marquette isn’t the way the Badgers will win most of their games, but it was evidence they have what it takes to turn it up when they need it most.

“We need to look in the mirror,” coach Greg Gard said of what he told his team at halftime. “Just be solid. Trust your fundamentals and trust what we do every day and those things will pay off for us.

“If we stick to our plan and defend according to our principles we’ll eventually be able to get things under control. We were able to do that.”

It’s a pretty standard formula at Wisconsin – play solid defense and don’t beat yourself. The same plan worked under Bo Ryan and it’s clear Gard, Ryan’s hand-picked successor, is following the same plan.

Entering the game, Wisconsin was allowing just 59.1 points a game, which made its first-half performance against Marquette a bit surprising. But as the Badgers took control in the second half, it was the defense that sparked things.

Marquette scored just seven points over the first 11 minutes of the second half. It helped the Badgers turn a one-point deficit into a 15-point lead.

“Defensively there we were pretty good,” Gard said. “They were having a hard time getting looks and our offense helped our defense. We were efficient offensively and we were able to score at the rim. And that helped us to set our defense.”

It helped that sophomore Ethan Happ came alive in the second half, but looking forward, the duo of Happ and Hayes, along with guard Bronson Koenig, will be tough to match in the Big Ten. The Badgers will have it fairly easy over the next couple of weeks with games against Wisconsin-Green Bay and Florida A&M before facing Rutgers in the Big Ten opener.

After that is a battle at Indiana on Jan. 3 followed by a trip to Purdue.

That stretch will tell us a lot about the conference race, but odds are, Wisconsin will be in it for the long haul.

“Let’s get back to being just solid," Gard added on Saturday. “Solid will lead to success. We don’t have to do anything superhuman here. Let’s back to defending how we can defend, take good shots and see where that lands us.”

High-scoring Hoosiers

While Wisconsin has been solid, it’s hard to ignore the play of Indiana, as well.

The Hoosiers have just one loss and that came in Fort Wayne to IPFW, the type of game not many high-major teams would be willing to play.

However, the loss has not seemed to have much ill effect on the Hoosiers as they responded two games later by taking care of then No. 3 North Carolina, adding that win to a season-opening victory over Kansas.

Indiana is the highest-scoring team in the Big Ten with James Blackmon (16.9), Robert Johnson (13.1) and Thomas Bryant (11.9) all averaging double-digit points. And sophomore OG Anunoby, who averaged 12.5 points through the first six games, should be back next week after missing three games with an ankle injury.

That scoring balance can only help as the Hoosiers have more big games to come with a meeting against Butler in the Crossroads Classic and a visit from Louisville as Big Ten play begins.

“I think it's valuable to have a consistent scoring team,” coach Tom Crean said. “I think that's the most important thing. So, I'm certainly not going to single out one guy. Especially when we have numerous guys in double figures.”

Misleading marks

While there has been some impressive play early from Big Ten teams, there are a few shiny records next to a few teams that could be a bit misleading. Rutgers and Minnesota could be those types of teams.

Rutgers is 9-1 and Minnesota is 10-1. That gives both teams two more wins than they had all of last year.

That’s the start of quite a turnaround. However, it’s not like either is beating the blue bloods of college basketball.

In the case of Rutgers, only one game has come against a team with an RPI better than 100 and it resulted in the only loss to Miami. Of the nine victories, six have come against teams with rankings worse than 200 along with wins over No. 135 Drexel and No. 147 DePaul.

It’s a bit better for Minnesota, which has two top-50 wins – though someone explain to me how Texas-Arlington had an RPI of 23.

Again, it’s progress from both teams, but I’ll wait to anoint either until they start getting it done in conference play.

Twitter @mattcharboneau