MADISON, Wis. (AP) – No. 5 Wisconsin appears close to getting its senior point guard back with postseason play just a few weeks away.
The Badgers haven’t missed a beat with sophomore Bronson Koenig running the offense while Traevon Jackson has been sidelined with a right foot injury. They’re 9-0 during that stretch going into Saturday’s game against Minnesota.
Soon, coach Bo Ryan could have two tested floor generals ready to handle the pressure at tournament time.
First there is the matter of taking care of the Big Ten. Wisconsin (24-2, 12-1) enjoys a three-game lead going into weekend play with five games on the schedule.
Jackson got hurt on Jan. 11. There was a rough four-to-six week timeline for his return, which would put him on target for the next week or so.
Koenig has proven to be more than capable to lead Wisconsin, averaging 12.1 points while hitting 47.7 percent (21 of 44) from 3-point range since taking over for Jackson.
Koenig and fellow starters Frank Kaminsky and Josh Gasser struggled to find their shot Wednesday at Penn State, combining to go 7 for 27 but the Badgers held on for a 55-47 win to match the 2006-07 team for the best start in program history.
Sam Dekker picked up the slack with a season-high 22 points on 9-of-13 shooting for his second 20-point game in three contests.
At 55.5 points allowed per game, Wisconsin is one of the nation’s top defensive teams but it struggled to contain the Nittany Lions’ D.J. Newbill. The Big Ten’s leading scorer finished with 29 points on 13-of-21 shooting but the Badgers held the rest of Penn State’s starters to 15 points on 7 of 26 from the floor.
”If Newbill wants to get a shot, he’s going to get a shot," Ryan said. " … We wanted to be sure we didn’t let anybody else get hot. Fortunately they didn’t.”
Ryan’s team faces another dynamic scorer in Andre Hollins, who is averaging 20.2 points on 51.7 percent shooting – 49.3 percent from 3-point range – over his last nine contests.
Minnesota’s NCAA tournament aspirations may have disappeared with Wednesday’s 72-66 home loss to lowly Northwestern. The Golden Gophers (16-11, 5-9) dropped their second straight following a three-game winning streak and righting the ship won’t be easy with a daunting stretch of games set to begin.
After visiting Madison, where it’s lost 16 of 17, Minnesota plays at surging Michigan State, where it hasn’t won in 18 years, before a rematch with the Badgers on March 5.
An inability to defend the 3-point arc has plagued the Gophers in their last two games, allowing the Wildcats to go 15 of 32 from deep three days after letting Indiana make 18 of 32 from beyond the arc in a 90-71 road loss.
”I’m not sure I can go back and watch, but you give up 18 3s last game and 15 this one, you’re not going to win,” Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said.
The Gophers may catch a break seeing as Wisconsin has been in a rut with its perimeter shooting, hitting 29.3 percent of 3s (24 of 82) over its last four games.
Hollins had an off night Wednesday, finishing with 12 points and going 3 of 10 from 3-point range before fouling out. He was also terrible in Minnesota’s two games against ranked Big 10 foes, totaling 14 points on 4-of-22 shooting – 3 for 15 from 3-point range – in January losses to Maryland and Ohio State.
The Gophers have lost five straight contests against Top 25 teams are have two wins in their last 55 road games versus ranked opponents.