Badgers climbing back into crazy Big Ten race
MADISON, Wis. — At heart, members of Wisconsin's basketball team aren't just a group of 18- to 22-year-old players. They are fans of the sport, constantly keeping an eye on games around the country, with a particular eye on other Big Ten contests.
"We're still basketball junkies, so we still watch a lot of games," Wisconsin forward Mike Bruesewitz said.
Badgers players have been spending extra time trying to keep track of league games because of the unusual unpredictably of the matchups this season. One night, Nebraska is upsetting nationally ranked Indiana. The next, last-place Penn State is taking down first place Illinois. In the process, Wisconsin has slowly crept back into championship contention on the heels of a three-game winning streak.
"I try to follow games on my phone the best I can," Badgers guard Josh Gasser said. "A couple of us got together and watched the Illinois-Penn State game. That game just shows that anyone can beat anyone. It's fun to watch all these teams go at it. Every game is pretty close. It's just fun to be a part of."
The Badgers, like every other Big Ten team, already have taken their share of lumps early in league play, but when Wisconsin (15-5, 4-3) and Illinois (15-4, 4-2) meet at 1 p.m. CT Sunday in Champaign, Ill., both will be jockeying for position near the top of the standings in an abnormally cluttered Big Ten.
Wisconsin, alone in sixth place, stands just a single game behind 5-2 Michigan for first place. In between, four teams — Ohio State, Michigan State, Illinois and Purdue — are a half-game behind at 4-2. A victory on Sunday could shoot the Badgers up to as high as third place in the league. A loss could send them tumbling to as low as eighth.
"I've never seen it like this from top to bottom," Badgers assistant coach Greg Gard said. "Look at what Nebraska and Penn State just did — something that maybe three weeks ago, people would have thought impossible. If you don't play well and play to your potential, you're going to have trouble."
The Badgers learned that difficult lesson back on Dec. 31, when they shot a miserable 3-for-28 from 3-point range in a 72-65 home loss against Iowa. Illinois, meanwhile, committed 14 turnovers on Thursday night in a 54-52 loss at Penn State and shot 34.7 percent from the field.
The pendulum swings and overall parity in league play makes Sunday's game even harder to predict, but the Illini's backcourt depth and 11-0 home record this season could give them the edge.
Junior guard Brandon Paul is the Illini's leading scorer, at 14.3 points per game. His breakout performance came during Illinois' 79-74 victory against Ohio State, when he scored a career-high 43 points. It marked the third-highest point total by any Illinois player in program history.
Junior guard D.J. Richardson averages 12.6 points, and senior point guard Sam Maniscalco averages 9.3 points. Maniscalco, who graduated from Bradley last year, followed a similar path as Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson. Both were immediately eligible by the NCAA after enrolling in post-graduate courses at their second institution.
Maniscalco's addition, Gard said, has given the Illini some stability in a season that otherwise would've been viewed as transitional in the backcourt. Star point guard Demetri McCamey graduated last season, and freshman point guard Tracy Abrams can learn slowly with Maniscalco in charge this year.
Gasser said the scoring ability of the Illini backcourt is cause for concern for Wisconsin.
"They could have one guy go for 20 and then another guy the next night," Gasser said. "I covered Richardson a little bit last year. He was a heck of a player. He's not even getting that much attention this year in the backcourt. That just shows how many good guards they have.
"Brandon Paul might be the best scorer in the league right now, or can be. He can score in a variety of ways. All their guards can score on the perimeter and at the hoop. They're just tough to stop."
What makes Illinois even more difficult to defend is the improvement of Meyers Leonard, a 7-1 sophomore, who can be a handful in the post. He is averaging 13.1 points and 7.6 rebounds per game.
"Athletically, they're probably on par with anybody else in the league," Gard said. "Talent has never been a shortfall at Illinois."
Wisconsin will counter with preseason AP All-American Jordan Taylor, who leads the Badgers in scoring (13.9 points) and assists (4.4) per game. Other than Taylor, the rest of Wisconsin's returning roster has scored a combined total of 24 points against Illinois.
Since dropping three straight games against Iowa, Michigan State and Michigan, Wisconsin has defeated Purdue, Nebraska and Northwestern. The most notable victory for Wisconsin came at Purdue, when the Badgers snapped the Boilermakers' 26-game home-court winning streak.
"We've got to come out with a lot of intensity, a lot of energy, kind of that mentality we had at Purdue," Bruesewitz said. "We've just got to make sure we take care of business and get a good shot every time down."
A victory on Sunday will give either Wisconsin or Illinois on leg up on the Big Ten — for however brief of a period that lasts.
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