MADISON, Wis. — They talked all week about toughness, physicality and grit — traits that have been staples in Wisconsin’s basketball program for years. But as they talked, there were equal parts regret and motivation in their voices. Those traits, players said, had been severely lacking when Wisconsin lost games a year ago to Virginia and Marquette.
Over a 30-game regular season, losing happens, and that is understandable. Losing because of being outworked, however, was considered both rare and unacceptable in this program. So if the Badgers were to survive the same difficult two-game stretch this time around, it would have to come from a place that was missing a year ago.
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No. 8 Wisconsin polished off yet another undefeated week with a 70-64 victory against in-state rival Marquette at the Kohl Center on Saturday afternoon. And the Badgers achieved the goals they set forth by tracking down more loose balls and making plays when the game tightened, much as they did Wednesday in knocking off Virginia, 48-38, on the road.
“It’s very satisfying,” Badgers guard Josh Gasser said. “It’s exactly what we need to do. It’s something that kind of lacked the first couple games. But that’s understandable in some respects. … Overall, this week was great for us. We won some grind-out games, which is what we’re going to need to do come Big Ten season.”
Last year, Virginia defeated Wisconsin 60-54 to earn an unusual Kohl Center victory. Ten days later, Marquette beat Wisconsin 60-50 in Milwaukee. The Golden Eagles pummeled the Badgers that day in the paint (36-10), while UW shot 9 of 23 from the free-throw line.
Marquette won the paint battle Saturday (34-24), but Wisconsin buried 19 of 23 foul shots and came up with baskets on critical possessions to negate the Golden Eagles’ advantage. For example, point guard Traevon Jackson saved a ball headed out of bounds off a missed Ben Brust dunk attempt and passed to teammate Sam Dekker, who lobbed to center Frank Kaminsky for an alley-oop dunk. The play gave Wisconsin a 39-31 advantage four minutes into the second half.
Later, Gasser tracked down a loose ball, glided to the hoop and leapt to find Dekker for an open 3-pointer from the right corner for a 51-40 lead.
“The last two years, what was the difference?” said Marquette coach Buzz Williams, whose team’s two-game winning streak against Wisconsin was snapped. “You could say it was our will. You could say today it was their will. It wasn’t tactical.”
Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan directed credit for the team’s toughness transformation to Gasser in particular. Gasser, a first-team all-Big Ten defensive player in 2011-12, missed all of last season after suffering a torn ACL in his left knee just weeks before the regular season began.
“The guys saw what he went through last year,” Ryan said. “And you can’t tell me that there’s not a guy in that locker room that didn’t take notice of the hours and the discipline and all the work that Josh put in. Never missed anything. Was always around. Always encouraging the guys last year. Through the spring, through the summer. …
“We’ve got some other guys out there that have a lot of grit. But I think you have to start somewhere, and that’s where it starts.”
The trickle-down effect showed even from a few of Wisconsin’s bench players. One of the biggest questions surrounding this year’s team was its lack of depth — or Ryan’s unwillingness to use a rotation deeper than eight players. But foul trouble forced Ryan’s hand, so he took a page from MacGyver, the fictional 1980s TV character.
Essentially, Ryan escaped a dangerous situation by improvising on the fly with a stick, some bubble gum and a piece of scotch tape. That is, using backups Evan Anderson and Zach Bohannon for five minutes with Kaminsky saddled with two fouls before the half. The two had played a total of five minutes all season until Saturday.
Wisconsin led 22-16 at the time of Kaminsky’s second foul. At halftime, they had managed to hold the lead at 28-25. The Badgers would push their lead to 11 in the second half and hang on after Marquette cut it to four in the final minute.
“I thought Evan and Zach did a great job of not letting it slip away,” Ryan said. “We were not in a hole when we were done those last three, four minutes. We were hanging tough.”
Ryan also used freshman Bronson Koenig extensively in the first half after Jackson picked up his second foul with 10:02 remaining. Koenig, who averaged 15.3 minutes per game this season, played 13 in the first half.
Wisconsin is 10-0, off to its best start in Ryan’s tenure and one victory from tying the all-time program record — a record the Badgers can match with a victory against UW-Milwaukee on Wednesday night. Eight of those victories have come against RPI top 100 teams, which is three more than any other team in the country.
Although some around the nation might be surprised at an unblemished record in December, this group is not. And now, players have the belief to trust in their toughness once again.
“I think we expected this,” said Dekker, who recorded his second career double-double with 20 points and 10 rebounds. “Not in an ignorant way at all. We have a very confident bunch, and Trae and I have tried to kind of preach it early in this offseason: why can’t we win every game we go out and play? We’ve got the talent to do it. We’ve got the best coach in the business leading us. We’ve got confident guys and we trust in each other. …
“We expect ourselves to be perfect. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but we’re happy where we’re at right now.”