Big Ten regular season crown within reach for No. 5 Badgers
MILWAUKEE (AP) The math is pretty simple now in the Big Ten.
Powerhouse Wisconsin is up by three games with four games left in the regular season. Second-place teams Maryland, Michigan State and Purdue need an unlikely collapse in Madison.
The challengers must make their moves with two weeks left on the schedule, starting with the 14th-ranked Terrapins. No. 5 Wisconsin (25-2, 13-1) travels to College Park on Tuesday night for the start of a tough, season-ending stretch.
The Badgers also host the Spartans on Sunday before finishing up with trips to Minnesota and Ohio State.
”This stretch right here – seriously, if you look at anybody else’s last four games – this is quite the stretch, I’m sure,” Badgers coach Bo Ryan said Monday on a teleconference. ”But our players right now, we’re just concentrating on the next one.”
And quite the matchup it could be against the Terrapins.
They might be Big Ten rookies, but the team was used to playing – and winning – high-profile home games when it was in the ACC.
”I don’t think (the experience) really carries over,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. ”Obviously, we’re confident at home. But it should be an electric atmosphere and all that, it should be a fun night.”
It just might be the conference game of the regular season. The key, Turgeon said, is for the squad led by guards Melo Trimble and Dez Wells to get more contributions from the frontcourt. Containing Wisconsin’s frontcourt trio of Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes will be crucial for the Terps.
”Yeah this is a different animal here,” Turgeon said. ”These guys have legitimate big guys.”
That frontcourt – and especially Kaminsky – has helped make Wisconsin a top contender to return to the Final Four. The Badgers have matched the best 27-game start in school history that was first set in 2006-7, while the 13-1 start in the Big Ten is also a first for the program. Wisconsin’s 10-game conference winning streak is the school’s longest since an 11-game stretch in 1940-41.
And the Badgers have won of late without veteran point guard Traevon Jackson. The senior said recently that he planned to return from right foot surgery for the home finale against Michigan State.
Ryan was less committal on Monday. He declined to speculate on Jackson’s return, insisting he had not been given a timetable.
”Our medical staff will determine when he’s ready,” Ryan told reporters in Madison. ”They’re looking out for him (and) want him to be able to live a healthy life.”
Sophomore Bronson Koenig has played well starting for Jackson. Ryan plans to monitor Jackson – whenever he is cleared to practice – before determining how to use his point guards.
”We’ll massage our minutes,” Ryan said.
Spartans coach Tom Izzo might love to have this dilemma. His team extended its winning streak to four following a rough-and-tumble victory on Sunday night at Illinois.
Izzo said Monday he wanted his players to work on discipline and execution on offense ahead of Thursday’s game against Minnesota.
”As soon as you come up, you come down. (You’ve) got to keep everything in perspective,” Izzo said about league play.
The Boilermakers have won seven of eight to put themselves in position for a top-4 finish in the Big Ten, which would give them a double bye when the expanded conference tournament begins in a couple weeks.
Coach Matt Painter isn’t looking that far ahead. Besides, he noted, there is a potential down side to being one of the top four seeds, in which case those teams would start on Day 3, or Friday, of the five-day tournament.
”We haven’t talked about that. Obviously, it’s an advantage,” Painter said. ”The concern for anyone who plays on Friday is that you’re playing someone who has already played in that venue, who has had success.”
Purdue might be one of the best-equipped squads to challenge Wisconsin in the tournament. Seven-foot center A.J. Hammons, who was named conference player of the week, could test the Badgers’ Kaminsky, a preseason All-American and inside-out threat.
MARYLAND: Hosts Wisconsin on Tuesday and Michigan on Saturday. At Rutgers on March 3 and Nebraska on March 8.
MICHIGAN STATE: Hosts Minnesota on Thursday. At Wisconsin on Sunday. Hosts Purdue on March 4. At Indiana on March 7.
PURDUE: Hosts Rutgers on Thursday. At Ohio State on Sunday and Michigan State on March 4. Hosts Illinois on March 7.