Wisconsin’s record last season indicates there were a dozen games in which the Badgers didn’t play well enough to win. Five times, Wisconsin couldn’t even crack 50 points in defeat. But players will tell you that not every loss during that 23-12 season was measured the same way.
One game in particular stood out above the rest for the way Wisconsin played — or didn’t play, really. It came during a 60-54 loss against Virginia at the Kohl Center.
“I think that was our worst game all last year,” Badgers center Frank Kaminsky said. “We played horrible from the start of the game to the end of the game. They beat us up the whole game inside and outside.”
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No. 8 Wisconsin (8-0) has a rare opportunity to make amends for a non-conference loss one year later when it plays at Virginia (7-1) at 6 p.m. CT Wednesday as part of a Big Ten/ACC Challenge rematch. And you can bet players — and coaches — are spotlighting the Cavaliers’ physicality in last year’s game.
“Coach reminds us of that stuff in the scouting report,” Badgers forward Sam Dekker said. “He’ll say these guys killed you on the boards last year. That’s just for them to put that little seed in you thinking we’ve got to outwork them this year. Whenever you can win the physical battle up front, it’s going to help you.”
Last year’s game provided an unusual example of a team out-Wisconsining Wisconsin. That is to say, playing smarter, tougher and more physical. Virginia out-rebounded Wisconsin 36-25, and Badgers associate coach Greg Gard said the Cavaliers were quicker to 50-50 balls.
Virginia’s three leading scorers in that game — Joe Harris, Darion Atkins and Akil Mitchell — are all back. But Virginia is so deep that Atkins, who scored 14 points, has been moved from starter to reserve.
Sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon sat out last season while recovering from foot surgery. He now ranks second on the team in scoring (10.8 points per game). Sophomore forward Anthony Gill also missed last season after transferring from South Carolina. He ranks third in scoring (10.4 points per game). Freshman guard London Perrantes has started six games and leads the team with a 4-to-1 assists-to-turnovers ratio.
“All you have to do is look at the fact that who are the starters, and are they still starting that are still in the program?” Badgers coach Bo Ryan said. “So they’ve improved. They had two players sitting out that were better than what they had on the court.”
Wisconsin appears to be showing more grit this season in finding ways to win close games, which is an encouraging sign for the Badgers as the grind of Big Ten play approaches. During a 70-63 victory in the Cancun Challenge championship against West Virginia last week, the Badgers won the rebounding battle 37-27.
“That shows our toughness as a team and where we are as a group,” Kaminsky said.
Dekker recorded the first double-digit rebounding game of his career and finished with 21 points and 12 rebounds. Dekker, a 6-foot-7 swingman, said he isn’t close to where he wants to be on the glass, but he is improving.
“Coach kind of throws that around,” he said. “You’ll hear him saying I’ll be soft. That’s just for him to tell me, ‘You’re athletic enough and strong enough and long enough to get in there and get more boards.’ I feel like I should have more double-digit rebound games like I did against West Virginia.
“I can’t accept getting four or five rebounds only. I’m too long and too active to have that happen. So I’ve just got to keep crashing the glass. That always helps offensively and defensively. You want to get those boards.”
Virginia will once again pose a significant threat on the boards because the Cavaliers are tied for sixth nationally in rebounding margin (plus-13). Wisconsin, which starts a three-guard lineup and is much smaller than past Badgers teams, is tied for 134th nationally in rebound margin (plus-2.5).
While Ryan was complimentary of Virginia’s team this season, so too was Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett — who knows Ryan’s teams quite well. Bennett served as an assistant coach at Wisconsin from 1999-2003, which included Ryan’s first two seasons with the program beginning in 2001.
“This is one of coach’s better teams that I’ve seen,” Bennett said. “He’s had a lot of good ones, but they really play well together. There’s no one where you can say well we’ll just maybe sag off of this guy and not worry about him and help on him and other guys. You’ve got to be sharp on every play. Five guys can really score, and that’s impressive.”
Wisconsin is averaging 76.8 points per game, which is the highest mark under Ryan. But the scoring will be less of a problem against Virginia than the ability to rebound and play defense — two staples Badgers players must pride themselves on to reverse last year’s result.
“We didn’t have any toughness in that game,” Kaminsky said. “I feel like we’ve got something to prove again.”