MADISON, Wis. — The lights went down, and laser beams pierced the dark arena, whirling across more than 17,000 seats. Orange basketballs with Wisconsin’s red motion W logo beamed from the rafters at midcourt, and four smoke machines belched a haze through pre-game introductions.
They don’t hold rock concerts at the Kohl Center, but Tuesday night’s rollicking ride sure felt like the kind of special environment you might find if Pearl Jam or Kings of Leon were in town. Yes, it was only a November basketball game. But as November basketball games go, this was as big as it got for the Badgers.
“You’ve got to spice it up a little bit,” Wisconsin point guard Traevon Jackson said. “We’ve got to do something.”
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On the biggest stage of the early season, No. 20 Wisconsin responded by gutting out a 59-53 victory against No. 11 Florida. And it was Jackson who provided the final flavor, drilling a pull-up jumper with 9.8 seconds remaining to give the Badgers a five-point lead and clinch the game.
Wisconsin has two victories to begin the season against St. John’s and now Florida — its first home opener against a nationally ranked foe since beating Kansas in 1968. How’s that for spicing it up?
“How many times do you open up with a ranked team?” Badgers coach Bo Ryan said. “Not a whole lot of teams in the county open up with a ranked team at home. I think (the fans) were pretty fired up.”
So were the players, who showcased their skills and demonstrated that this could be a special season — and not just at home, where Wisconsin has had remarkable success under Ryan. The Badgers are now 182-18 (.910 winning percentage) there since he took over in 2001-02 and 31-11 against Associated Press top 25 teams.
This Wisconsin team does not have nearly the size it did last year, when the Badgers tied for fourth in the Big Ten, won 23 games and reached their 15th consecutive NCAA tournament. Gone are frontcourt players Jared Berggren, Mike Bruesewitz and Ryan Evans.
Instead, what it has is a group of players that fit Ryan’s tough-minded style and will scrap to make plays despite being outsized. On Tuesday, for example, 6-foot-1 guard Ben Brust led the team with nine rebounds, and the 6-2 Jackson was second with seven boards. The formula, however, could prove to be even more successful.
“I think that offensively they’ll cause more problems because of the shooting, and they really can space you and they can drive it,” said Florida coach Billy Donovan, whose team pummeled Wisconsin 74-56 in Gainesville last season. “And they’ve got tough kids. …
“Their team is a lot different. I think they play a little bit faster than maybe they did a year ago. They’re a little bit more dangerous in transition because of the shooting. They’re looking to do two things. They’re looking to either take 3s or get layups.”
Wisconsin got a bit of both on Tuesday, including making 9 of 20 3s. Badgers sophomore forward Sam Dekker is one of the key reasons for change as he continues to blossom into the team’s go-to offensive player. He is a stretch 4, which means he can take players deep on the 3-point arc. And he is no longer a sixth man in only to provide brief lifts.
Dekker played 38 minutes on Tuesday and finished with a team-high 16 points on 5-of-10 shooting. He also canned consecutive 3-pointers to lift Wisconsin from its early doldrums after the Badgers trailed 16-4. Wisconsin closed the first half on a 25-10 run to take a 29-26 halftime lead.
Earlier on Tuesday, Dekker was named as one of 50 players to the preseason Wooden Award, which goes to college basketball’s best player.
“I can’t worry about that stuff at all,” Dekker said. “Outside noise. There’s going to be stuff going on that’s going to be trying to get in my head but I’ve got to let that pass through. It’s an honor to be on that list. It’s cool. But I’ve got a lot of work to do. Our team has a lot of work to do.”
Some of the work that remains was evident against a long and athletic Florida team. Ryan did not appear comfortable with using a deep bench and instead opted to use only eight players in his rotation. With such a short bench, foul trouble could be an issue — Badgers guard Josh Gasser even fouled out Tuesday.
Backup point guard George Marshall played just three minutes and did not appear in the second half, even as Jackson struggled against full-court pressure and committed five turnovers. Jackson finished with 13 points, seven rebounds and four assists and made up for his uneven play with his 16-foot jumper in the waning seconds.
“Obviously the five turnovers is terrible,” Jackson said. “But get it out of the way now. I like to look at the positives of things. At the end of the day, we got a win. I’ve got to take better care of the ball, especially when teams come and trap. I’ll look at the tape and learn from it and won’t do it again.”
Among the most glaring statistics to emerge from the first two games is that Wisconsin has as many assists as turnovers (24). But while plenty of work remains, the Badgers have much to be proud of one week into the regular season. They are 2-0, with quality victories against BCS opponents.
“Someone told me out there that they kind of threw us in the deep end to start the year,” Dekker said. “I don’t really look at it that way. I just think we’re a good team playing against other good teams.”
And right now, they’re playing like rock stars, too.