Badgers, Hoosiers battle for No. 1 in Big Ten
One team has legitimate national championship aspirations, a projected top-3 NBA draft pick and five players averaging double figures in scoring. The other team is simply trying to make it back to the NCAA Tournament, has a losing road record and a starting point guard out for the season with a torn ACL.
On the surface, second-ranked Indiana possesses all the hype. Wisconsin is a team in need of hope. Yet when the two teams meet at 8 p.m. Tuesday in Bloomington, Ind., only this much matters: The winner will take over sole ownership of first place in the Big Ten.
Indiana (15-1, 3-0) and Wisconsin (12-4, 3-0) have certainly taken divergent paths, but it has led both teams to an unlikely battle for the top spot in the toughest conference in the country. Many presumed the Hoosiers would be here. Few surmised the Badgers would be, too, particularly after they lost point guard Josh Gasser for the year on Oct. 27.
"Gasser was going to be a tremendous point guard for them this year," Indiana coach Tom Crean said. "Obviously it's taken them a little time with him out to get acclimated, but they have."
Gasser was set to take over as floor general for Jordan Taylor and would have given the Badgers a veteran presence with 66 games of starting experience in the backcourt. After Gasser's injury, Badgers coach Bo Ryan had no choice but to throw sophomore Traevon Jackson and redshirt freshman George Marshall into extended duty. Marshall started the first six games before Ryan opted for Jackson. Neither had started a game before this year.
This season, they have combined to average 10.5 points and 2.4 assists, although both have struggled at times against defensive pressure. During Wisconsin's 74-51 victory against No. 12 Illinois on Saturday, for example, Jackson had the ball poked away from him twice while dribbling in the open floor. Despite scoring 14 points, he tallied one assist with four turnovers.
"The two of them I think have kind of done a good job of playing off of each other's strengths and what they can give to the team," Ryan said. "I think that's helped us, especially here recently. . . . (Traevon) has faced some pretty good pressure. He does have a few turnovers that we'd like to change. Overall, he's seeing the floor, he's getting people involved and his timing is better on his reads."
The backcourt matchup will be especially intriguing because of Hoosiers freshman point guard Yogi Ferrell, one of the most electric players in the conference. He recorded 13 points and eight assists in Indiana's 88-81 victory against Minnesota last week. Ferrell is averaging 6.6 points per game and ranks second in the Big Ten in assists (5.25) behind Michigan sophomore Trey Burke.
"He walks on the court, he has a swagger," Wisconsin assistant coach Greg Gard said. "He's magnetic in terms of getting people to follow him out on the court. He had a great career as a high school player and as an AAU player, so I'm not surprised by what he's doing at all. I'd be more surprised if he wasn't having this type of impact."
Indiana opened the season as a favorite among pundits to win the program's first national championship since 1987 under coach Bobby Knight. And the Hoosiers haven't disappointed.
IU ranks first nationally in scoring offense (87.1 points per game), first in scoring margin (26.6 points), fourth in field goal percentage (51.1 percent) and sixth in 3-point percentage (41.9 percent). Cody Zeller, Victor Oladipo, Christian Watford, Jordan Hulls and Will Sheehey all average at least 11.4 points per game, making the Hoosiers the only Big Ten team with five players in double figures.
"They have so many weapons you've got to be conscious of," Badgers forward Mike Bruesewitz said. "Otherwise one of them will get hot and they'll blow you up."
Zeller is Indiana's projected top-3 NBA selection, and the 7-foot preseason All-American could go as high as No. 1. This season, he leads the Hoosiers in scoring (16.6 points) and rebounding (7.8).
Wisconsin's 6-10 center Jared Berggren, who leads the Badgers in scoring (13.4 points) and is second on the team in rebounding (6.4), will be tasked with stopping Zeller.
"Definitely I look forward to that," Berggren said. "Just knowing there's a big responsibility for me to help the team be successful. Trying to neutralize a great player like him, that's a big role for me to take on there."
Wisconsin lost four of its first 10 games to begin the season and is 1-2 on the road thus far. But the Badgers have won five straight to put themselves back in the hunt for a 15th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance -- and maybe even one of the most unlikely conference titles in program history.
"We're not surprised that they're playing as well as they're playing," Crean said. "We know we've got a big time battle on our hands, and we're excited about it."
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