MADISON, Wis. — By nature, college basketball teams are unpredictable because of the human elements behind them. When young players gather on game day, a coach can only hope what has been taught in practice will show up on the court.
Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan is no different. Some days, his players seem ready until they go six minutes without making a basket, as the Badgers did in an overtime loss Thursday at Minnesota. Other days, they bury everything in sight and suffocate a Top 25 team on national television.
“I found out a long time ago, the types of practices you have before a game — overrated,” Ryan said. “I learned a long time ago, coaching in high school, never to say that. I’ve thought we had some of our worst practices and played really well in the game.”
On Sunday, Ryan saw all that was good about his team in No. 20 Wisconsin’s 71-49 dismantling of No. 13 Ohio State at the Kohl Center. The Badgers scored 18 consecutive points early in the first half and held the Buckeyes scoreless for nearly nine minutes. Wisconsin also shot 52.7 percent from the field for the game.
It was a far cry from the Wisconsin team that lost 58-53 in overtime to Minnesota just three days earlier, when the Badgers made 30.5 percent of their shots. If nothing else, the two games, when juxtaposed against each other, show just how fickle the Big Ten is this season.
“A lot of people said, ‘Heaven help the (opposing) team when you guys shoot a decent percentage,’ ” Ryan said. “It just so happened it was today.”
The Big Ten is a league in which teams beat each other upside the head like bullies clashing on the school playground. And even with a month remaining in the regular season, declaring a winner is still up in the air.
Wisconsin’s up-and-down week mirrors that of several Big Ten teams during the conference season. But Sunday’s victory also puts the Badgers (18-8, 9-4) back into the discussion for a league title. They are two games behind Indiana and Michigan State with five to play, and they have a legitimate shot to earn a share of the championship in the toughest conference in college basketball.
“A lot of it is going to come down to scheduling and who plays who,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “That factors in where you have a set up like we do where you don’t play everybody twice. I think it is kind of wide open. It’s getting on that roll, staying healthy, those types of things.”
Given the remaining schedules of the best Big Ten teams, Wisconsin just may be in the driver’s seat to pull off a stunning rise to the top.
Indiana (11-2) still must play at Michigan State, Minnesota and Michigan. The Hoosiers also have a home game against Ohio State. Wisconsin holds the tiebreaker against Indiana by virtue of its 64-59 victory Jan. 15 in Bloomington.
Michigan State (11-2), in addition to playing Indiana, still must travel to face Ohio State and Michigan, as well as host Wisconsin on March 7.
Michigan (9-4) plays Illinois, Michigan State and Indiana. And, like the Hoosiers, the Wolverines are behind the Badgers in a tiebreak because of a head-to-head loss.
Wisconsin, meanwhile, has the easiest schedule left among the top four teams in the conference. The Badgers play five more regular-season games, and only one of those teams is bound for the NCAA tournament (Michigan State). The other four teams — Northwestern, Nebraska, Purdue and Penn State — entered the day filling the last four spots in the standings, a combined 12-38.
“I think every game is going to be a challenge, no matter who it is,” Badgers guard Ben Brust said. “Any team can beat any team. That’s for when we’re playing a team and that’s for when other teams are playing other teams. Obviously you’ve got to take care of business of what you can control, and the rest will hopefully play out your way.”
On Sunday, Wisconsin demonstrated why it could be such a dangerous team in the final month of the season. The Badgers held the Buckeyes scoreless for a stretch of 8:41 to take control of the game by halftime.
Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft’s jumper with 17:40 left tied the score at 6-6. The Buckeyes didn’t score another point until forward Deshaun Thomas’ putback layup with 8:59 remaining. By that time, Wisconsin led 24-8.
Wisconsin so frustrated Ohio State that Matta was left to question what players occupied his team’s jerseys during the first half — unpredictability on display again.
“The way we opened up the game defensively, guys catch and shoot, we weren’t even challenging shots,” Matta said. “We took a timeout and it was like, ‘What’s going on here?’ Bewilderment.”
Wisconsin has never finished worse than fourth place in the Big Ten since Ryan’s tenure began in 2001-02. Somehow, the Badgers are doing it again despite losing starting point guard Josh Gasser less than two weeks before the first game.
Realistically, Wisconsin is looking at a 22-9 regular-season record, including 13-5 in league play. A victory at Michigan State would mean a 14-4 Big Ten record is attainable, but the Badgers will have to play the same way they did on Sunday.
“We got off to a pretty hot start,” said Badgers center Jared Berggren, one of four players to score in double figures Sunday. “Got things rolling a little bit. Guys start feeling good about their shots. It’s just kind of the way things go. It can kind of have a snowball effect.”
If Wisconsin’s snowball keeps rolling in a positive direction in the final month of the regular season, the Badgers could be looking at a surprising finish atop the Big Ten standings in another unpredictable year.