Defense propels Badgers to easy victory

MADISON, Wis. — Shots clanked, rattled, rolled and fell off the rim. Players tripped over themselves. They dribbled off their shoe out of bounds.

By no means could Omaha’s display of offense Tuesday night at the Kohl Center be considered the picture of basketball competence. The Mavericks are a second-year Division I program and played like it from start to finish during Wisconsin’s 86-40 shellacking.

So perhaps Wisconsin can’t take a ton from a game that was over in the first 15 minutes given the level of competition. Still, there’s something to be said for delivering a good, old-fashioned butt kicking and establishing a defensive toughness that has been lacking at times this season.

On Tuesday, Wisconsin held Omaha to 17 of 51 shooting from the field (33.3 percent), including 2 of 12 from the 3-point line. The Badgers outrebounded the Mavericks 49-26 and forced 19 turnovers. They also allowed a season-low 13 points in the first half.

Over the past two games, which also included an 81-56 victory against California on Sunday, Wisconsin has now forced 42 turnovers.

“It’s a start,” Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. “But every game is different. Every 40 minutes is different. They’re starting to see some results from their changed behavior.”

That changed behavior likely stems from two poor defensive performances against Florida and Creighton. Florida knocked off Wisconsin 74-56, and Creighton dropped 84 points on the Badgers nine days later in a 10-point victory. Those numbers significantly hiked up Wisconsin’s scoring defense averages to an alarming level.

Wisconsin (6-3) entered the night ranked No. 58 nationally in scoring defense, allowing 59.2 points per game. As a means of comparison, consider that the Badgers ranked No. 1 in that category last season, surrendering a full six points fewer per game. In the five seasons before last year, Wisconsin’s scoring defense rankings were: 4, 4, 10, 1 and 10.

“I think we’ve made some solid improvements,” Badgers center Jared Berggren said. “You look back at a game like Florida or our early games, even Creighton, they put up pretty big scoring numbers on us. I think we’ve done a lot better job of helping each other, rotating defensively. When one guy steps up to help, we’ve done a better job.

“If a big guy steps up to help, guards are wrapping back in and deflecting passes, sticking their nose in there, being aggressive, knocking balls off guys’ legs. Those are the things we’ve got to do.”

Omaha (2-8) scored just 15 points in the opening 23 minutes and became the second team this season to score 40 points against Wisconsin. The Badgers easily handled Cornell 73-40 back on Nov. 18.

For Omaha, the game continued an absolutely brutal stretch away from home, and it did little to show the Mavericks’ full capabilities. Omaha hasn’t played a home game since Nov. 11, and Mavericks coach Darrin Hansen said his team hadn’t practiced in its own gym for nine days.

“We’re tired,” Hansen said. “I’ll admit I wasn’t sure what town I was in when I woke up today to be real honest with you. I felt like Bon Jovi kind of. I wasn’t real sure.”

Of course, Omaha was treated like anything but rock stars. The Mavericks, out of the Summit League, have now lost eight of their last nine games, including losses to North Dakota State and South Dakota State.

“In the Summit League, our bigs will be competitive, and we like to play inside-out,” Hansen said. “It’s really hard to do that with Wisconsin’s size because it’s hard for us to establish that, first if at all.

“Once you throw back out, they can close quickly and contest every shot. When you can’t establish inside and most shots outside are contested, it tends to be a long night.”

That type of dread from opponents is exactly what Badgers players hope to continue as Big Ten play approaches. Wisconsin has just four games remaining before opening conference play at home against Penn State on Jan. 3.

Players seem to recognize better defensive efforts are needed in order for Wisconsin to avoid finishing worse than fourth in the Big Ten for the first time in Ryan’s 12 seasons in charge of the program. And that’s a good place to start.

“At the end of the day, we’ve got to live and die by what we know,” said Wisconsin guard Ben Brust, who tallied 15 points and 10 rebounds. “That’s sticking to the rules. We’re getting better at helping and recovering or picking up for the next guy if something goes wrong.

“From Day 1 to where we are now, it’s better, but there’s still room for improvement. Just staying solid defensively. At the end of the day, just stay solid.”

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