With a stellar performance in its conference opener, Wisconsin showed why it’s favored to win its first Big Ten regular-season title in seven seasons.
The fourth-ranked Badgers will try to avoid a letdown Sunday night when they visit a Northwestern team that upset them last season.
Wisconsin (13-1) had its best shooting performance in 17 seasons (63.8 percent) in an 89-72 win over visiting Penn State on Wednesday. The starters combined for 80 points with Nigel Hayes providing a team-best 21, and Frank Kaminsky delivering 18 points and 14 rebounds.
"One of our goals the last three years I’ve been here is to win a Big Ten title, and we haven’t done that yet," Kaminsky said. "So we have to approach every single game like it’s a championship game, because to be champions we have to play like champions every game."
Wisconsin won its first three Big Ten games last season before a pivotal 1-5 stretch that included a 65-56 home defeat to Northwestern on Jan. 29, which ended a seven-game win streak in the series. Ranked fourth in the country, the Badgers opened league play with a 76-49 rout at Northwestern on Jan. 2, 2014, their fourth consecutive win there.
"Anything can happen in this league. I’ve seen a lot of crazy wins, a lot of crazy losses over my last three years in the Big Ten. We know that every game is going to be a battle," Kaminsky said.
They’ve taken 12 of 14 over Northwestern, which opened its conference season with a win for the first time since starting 2-0 in 2005-06. The Wildcats (10-4) spoiled Rutgers’ Big Ten debut with a 51-47 road victory Tuesday.
They limited the Scarlet Knights to 30.2 percent, the lowest by a Big Ten opponent since then-No. 14 Wisconsin shot 26.3 in last season’s loss in Madison.
"This is a grind-it-out league," junior guard Tre Demps said. "We want to be a defensive team built on just getting stops. When your M.O. is your defense, and I think that’s what we’re becoming, it doesn’t let you lose your mojo."
Northwestern’s 58.9 points allowed per game is second only to the Badgers’ 53.8 in the Big Ten, but the Wildcats are averaging just 64.8 points at the other end of the floor while Wisconsin is scoring 74.6 per game.
Wildcats freshman Bryant McIntosh, though, has shined lately by averaging 18.0 points on 54.8 percent shooting in his last three games. McIntosh is the team’s second-best scorer (11.7 ppg) just behind Demps (11.8).
Third-leading scorer Alex Olah (10.4 ppg) has a combined four points on 0-for-4 shooting in the past two games, but he scored a career-high 23 and made 10 of 14 shots in last season’s loss to the Badgers.
Hayes scored a season-best 19 points and made 8 of 12 shots in that victory, but was limited to six points on 1-of-5 shooting in the upset in Madison.
Kaminsky, a suburban Chicago native, has been held to single digits in each of his four games against the Wildcats. The Badgers’ leading scorer and one of the conference’s top rebounders (8.4 per game) has totaled 43 points and 25 boards in the past two games.
Northwestern, which fell 65-56 at then-No. 23 Butler on Dec. 6 in its only other game with a ranked team this season, has lost four consecutive matchups to Top 25 squads since winning at Wisconsin.