Charboneau: Wisconsin wiggles its way back

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Wisconsin's Nigel Hayes drives against Maryland's Damonte Dodd during the second half Sunday.

A little more than a week ago, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Committee gave an early look at this season’s Tournament bracket when it released its top four seeds in each of the four regions.

It is likely to change by the time Selection Sunday rolls around, but it at least gave an idea of where many teams stood in the eyes of the committee.

What was clear was the Big Ten wasn’t thought highly of as no team made the top 16. In particular, many wondered if Wisconsin was getting judged a bit harshly.

Of course, the committee looked pretty smart as the Badgers went out and lost at home to Northwestern the next night and then got beat on the road against Michigan. As the schedule got tougher, it appeared, the Badgers were starting to falter.

The team that had been as steady and consistent as any in the conference was starting to show cracks, and with senior guard Bronson Koenig ailing, it looked like Sunday afternoon’s matchup with Maryland would be tough to win.

And for 20 minutes, it looked like a third straight loss was coming as Maryland led, 33-27, at the half. However, something clicked in the second half. After making just 3 of 13 shots in the paint in the opening half, Wisconsin was 11-for-17 in the second, riding Nigel Hayes (21 points) and Ethan Happ (20) to a 71-60 victory.

“I just thought we played more mature the second half,” Wisconsin coach Greg Gard said. “Maybe we grew up in the 15 minutes we sat in the locker room. I don't know, because the first half we were getting the ball in the right spot, but the production wasn't what it needed to be.”

The win ended the two-game skid and left the Badgers in a first-place tie with Purdue, which has won five straight. And much of it, if not all, was because of the play of Happ and Hayes. It helped having Koenig back, who scored nine, but the big men were the key.

“They were good. They were terrific,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. “We couldn't guard them. We couldn't double them. We couldn't guard them head up. They were great.”

It was exactly the type of game Wisconsin needed.

With four games to play in the regular season, the Badgers needed to turn things around, and to do so, they went to their bread and butter. They’ll get big shots from Koenig and they’ll surely get help from the likes of Zak Showalter, Vitto Brown and D’Mitrik Trice, but it’s the two big men that matter.

“Our guys, specifically in the second half, stepped up and answered the bell,” Gard said.

There won’t be many gimmes down the stretch. Wisconsin hits the road this week for games at Ohio State and Michigan State before closing at home with Iowa and Minnesota. At least three will be fighting for their tournament lives, something that makes things that much tougher for the Badgers.

But with Sunday’s second half re-awakening, it looks like Wisconsin is headed in the right direction and might even have the last laugh on the committee.

Purdue poses problems

While Wisconsin did its best over the weekend to right the ship, there have been no such issues at Purdue. The Boilermakers are cruising, winning five straight and eight of the last nine. Included in that run have been wins over Maryland and Northwestern with an early season win over Wisconsin already in the bank.

It puts Purdue in solid position heading into the final two weeks of the season as it plays three of its final four games on the road.

“I think we are winning some kind of grind it out games and I think that is a good thing for our team,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “We can’t have the mentality to outscore people even though it is a good problem to have sometimes when you are going against a good opponent.

“I think from a defense standpoint this is the best we have been playing.”

Tom Izzo agreed on Saturday after Michigan State was held to just 63 points and forced 15 turnovers. He said the Boilermakers were playing more “Purdue-like defense.”

Of course, combining that with the play of Caleb Swanigan helps. The sophomore recorded his 23rd double-double in the win and continues to make his strong case for player of the year.

“There are a lot of guys out there who are really good players and I am not saying Biggie is the best player in the country but he is playing the best,” Painter said. “And that is what it is about. There are a lot of guys that can really play out there.

“But no one is putting up numbers like him and no one is consistent like him.”

It’s a pretty good combination for Purdue — an All-American with a team that gets after it defensively.

It could be enough for the Boilermakers to win the Big Ten for the first time since 2010.