MADISON, Wis. — Sports and homework typically are viewed as mutually exclusive entities because most people believe the freedom to play sports isn’t earned until homework is finished.
Sometimes, however, the two subjects go entirely hand-in-hand.
Count Wisconsin center Jared Berggren among those athletes who understand the benefits of mixing the two topics for his own gain. In the 22 days between games against Ohio State, Berggren went back to the videotape to study and learn from his mistakes against Buckeyes center Jared Sullinger, a preseason All-America selection. And he used every ounce of that knowledge to his advantage the second time around.
In the teams’ first matchup on Jan. 4, Sullinger scored 24 points with 10 rebounds in Ohio State’s 58-52 victory in the Kohl Center. Midway through the first half, he had single-handedly outscored the Badgers’ entire team, 11-10, and Berggren spent much of his time on the bench for his inability to contain the Buckeyes’ big man in the post.
To put it bluntly, Berggren had his butt handed to him on a silver platter by Sullinger.
“I just tried to focus on what I did wrong and what I could do better for this time,” Berggren said. “There was a lot of stuff that I didn’t do right in the first one where I let Sullinger get going early, let him get some easy touches and easy shots. He kind of took it to me a little bit. I guess you could say it was a little bit personal in that I had to do a better job in my role for the team to be successful.”
Berggren did not make the same mistakes when Wisconsin ventured to Columbus on Sunday for the rematch. The 6-foot-10 junior displayed the confidence and skill level that many teammates knew he was capable of, and he shut down the 6-9 Sullinger, who tallied just eight points and six rebounds. It marked Sullinger’s lowest scoring output in Big Ten play this season.
Berggren’s play was a big reason the Badgers won their first Big Ten road game against a top-10 opponent since 1980.
“If he can do what he did against Jared Sullinger, who is arguably the best player in the country, then he can do that against anybody,” Badgers point guard Jordan Taylor said. “He’s known that since last year, I think. He was really talented. He’s been really talented, and he waited his turn. For him now, it’s just something that he’s got to do night in and night out. The sky is the limit for him.”
In addition to Berggren’s stellar defensive performance, he scored 18 points with three 3-pointers and grabbed five rebounds. He drilled the go-ahead 3-pointer from the left wing with 31 seconds remaining and later hit two free throws to seal the contest.
That Berggren was able to recover from such a disappointing performance in the span of three weeks speaks to his growth as a player.
“He’s had a great year so far,” Badgers guard Josh Gasser said. “To get hot at the right time is definitely a big thing. He knows he can play. We all trust him. He’s one of those guys that can play inside-out. He’s a tough matchup for a lot of five-men in this league.
“When he’s making shots like that, he’s just that much better of a player. Even on the defensive side of the ball, he played unbelievable (Sunday).”
A year ago, Berggren averaged just 6.9 minutes and 2.4 points per game while stuck behind a senior-laden frontcourt. He now averages 10.6 points per game and has raised his scoring average by 8.2 points from last season, the third-highest increase among Big Ten players behind only Tim Frazier (Penn State) and Meyers Leonard (Illinois).
Defensively, Berggren has become just the third player in Wisconsin history to reach 50 blocks in a season.
“Anything I can do to help the team get a win is really what I’m focused on,” Berggren said.
Berggren’s talent level has continued to improve during his time in the Badgers’ program, and it’s become clear that he is one of the keys to Wisconsin making a deep run in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.
Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan believes Berggren has a ways to go yet.
“He still has a lot of things to improve on and he’s going to keep working at it,” Ryan said. “He showed some progress (Sunday). But as soon as you start getting carried away with a particular game and what somebody does, where are you going from there? I found a lot of things on the tape. I found a lot of things that we can improve on.”
You can bet Berggren will be studying that tape to improve in any way he can.