Wisconsin's Ben Brust, who had 18 points, shoots between UW-Milwuakee's Matt Tiby and Kyle Kelm.
MADISON, Wis. — Time will tell whether this rendition of Wisconsin basketball will go down as the greatest team in program history. Other Badgers teams in the modern era have won Big Ten regular season titles, conference tournament championships and reached Final Fours, so it’s quite premature to make such lofty assertions on a group that hasn’t even reached Big Ten play.
As it stands, however, this version of Wisconsin basketball has done something only one other Badgers unit has ever accomplished: open the season with 11 consecutive victories.
No. 4 Wisconsin tied the program record after cruising to a 78-52 victory against Milwaukee on Wednesday night at the Kohl Center. And with two games remaining against lower-level Division I programs, it’s looking more and more as though the Badgers will complete the non-conference portion of their schedule a perfect 13-0.
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“Yay for the team,” Badgers coach Bo Ryan said. “Our guys have played good teams. They get credit. You get credit for what you’ve done to this point. It’s like in class. You do your assignments and then you get credit for them. If you do them well, you get stars on your paper or a pat on the back. But if you stop doing them well, then everything else just kind of goes the other way. So far to this point, they’ve found a way to get a lot of things done.
“We’ve just got to keep developing players and keep developing our help and receive, our defensive reads, offensively better cuts. We’re 11 games into it, but we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Over the course of a lengthy college basketball season, there is little time to revel in the moment. But consider the Badgers’ accomplishments already: they have ascended 16 spots in the national rankings over four weeks to reach the top five for just the second season ever; they have won eight games against RPI top 100 teams while no other team has more than five victories against top 100 schools; they have established the third-longest winning streak for Wisconsin at any point in a season since 1943. And they are playing at a level unmatched by even the best Wisconsin teams in recent memory.
It’s worth noting that the Dick Bennett-coached Final Four team of 1999-2000 was 7-4 at this point. Ryan’s three Big Ten regular-season title teams were 5-6, 9-2 and 9-2. The only other Wisconsin team to reach the top 5 in 2006-07 was 10-1.
“There’s no denying we’ve had a good start being 11-0,” said Badgers guard Ben Brust, who scored a game-high 18 points and buried his first four 3-point attempts. “We still know it’s going to get much, much harder moving forward. The Big Ten is just something different.
“I think what’s been great about this start is we’ve been challenged in many different ways. High scoring, low scoring, neutral court, away games, home games, ranked team on the road, ranked team at home. We just have a lot of different things we’ve been able to do. And that’s been good, but you’ve got to remember that it all re-sets come January. But we’ve got to finish out what we have here.”
Brust provided another example on Wednesday as to why this year’s team is so dangerous. Fellow starters Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, Traevon Jackson and Josh Gasser have received much of the limelight thus far this season. Kaminsky set the single-game scoring record with 43 points, Dekker recorded his first two career double-doubles, Jackson has drastically improved as the team’s point guard and Gasser is the defensive stopper in his return from season-ending ACL surgery.
Brust, meanwhile, has flown somewhat below the radar. But he is a player who has twice tied the single-game made 3-point record with seven, and his ability to stretch defenses creates yet another matchup problem for opponents.
This season, Brust has made 29 3-pointers, which is nearly twice as many as any other player on the team. Dekker and Kamisnky have made 15 3s.
“Ben’s one of those guys that he’s not going to always pass the eye test for some people,” Dekker said. “But he’s one of those guys that’s always going to get it done day in and day out. Last year he didn’t always get the shine either, but he led our team in scoring, hit some of the biggest shots of the year. Really paced us offensively and got things going for us. Again, he’s doing that this year.”
What also has made this year’s team special is the recognition that, despite the wins, there are enough areas to improve that players don’t gloat about their achievements. On Wednesday, for example, the Badgers scored two points in the first four minutes of the game. They also allowed Milwaukee to trim a 26-point deficit to 16 in the second half, as Wisconsin made only 1 of 13 3-point attempts.
Dekker noted it wasn’t the first time Wisconsin had “gotten in a couple of those little funks” this season.
“We’re going to be playing much better teams down the road here,” he said. “We’re not going to be able to luck out with some of the plays that’s been happening. When we play a team like Ohio State and we get in one of those funks and they go on a 10-0, 12-0 run, it’s really hard to snap back from that stuff. We’ve got be able to have a constant 40 minutes of hard work and stay sharp and staying focused. The more we stay focused, the better 40 minutes we’ll have.”
With Wednesday’s victory, Wisconsin joined the 1993-94 unit as the only Badgers teams to start a season 11-0. That team closed the regular season 6-10 and lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
This year’s team, of course, has far bigger aspirations. And through 11 games, the Badgers are playing like it.