Big Ten gameplay predictably unpredictable
MADISON, Wis. -- In the chaotic realm of Big Ten basketball, the first three weeks of conference games has taught us that no victory is guaranteed -- no matter how sure-fire it seems before tip-off.
Just ask Indiana, which inexplicably lost against Minnesota last week. Or Michigan State, which stumbled Saturday at Northwestern. Or Wisconsin, which couldn't find the rim in a stunning late-December home loss against Iowa.
This season, even the best teams have discovered that it's a topsy-turvy existence in league play. One day, a team is fighting for first place. The next, it's clanging around in seventh place.
So although Wisconsin entered Sunday's game against Nebraska as 14-point favorites, players knew better than to assume a win would be as easy as Las Vegas oddsmakers suggested.
"Nothing is given in this league," Wisconsin forward Jared Berggren said. "Every team is going to put up a fight. Every game is a battle. You can't take anything for granted. You can't look past anyone. You've got to bring it every night, which is what makes the Big Ten such a good league."
Perhaps that's why Wisconsin players weren't surprised at the difficulty they encountered during a 50-45 victory against Nebraska on Sunday night at the Kohl Center. Although the conference cellar-dwelling Cornhuskers never led, they kept things interesting until the final seconds -- it wasn't until Badgers point guard Jordan Taylor drilled two free throws with 12 ticks left that the game was sealed.
Only three weeks ago, Wisconsin slammed Nebraska on the road, 64-40. But the unpredictability of the league and overall talent this season is what makes it so enticing. According to the Ratings Percentage Index, which helps determine the strength of each conference, the Big Ten is ranked as the toughest league in the country -- ahead of the Big East, Big 12, SEC and ACC.
With the victory, Wisconsin improved to 14-5 overall and 3-3 in league play. The .500 mark is good enough to earn a three-way tie for sixth in the Big Ten with Indiana and Iowa.
"The winner in this conference might have five or six losses the way it's looking right now," Wisconsin guard Josh Gasser said. "Top to bottom, it's probably one of the deeper leagues in the country, so you've got to bring it every night, prepare each game like you're playing the best team. It's fun to play."
It hadn't been so fun lately for Wisconsin. The Badgers were ranked as high as 11th in the Associated Press poll three weeks ago, only to fall out of the Top 25 entirely with three straight losses against Iowa, Michigan State and Michigan.
On Sunday, the Badgers demonstrated some of the ugly traits that were exposed in previous losses. Thankfully for them, they escaped on a night when they faced one of the inferior teams in the Big Ten.
Wisconsin entered the evening leading the nation in fewest turnovers per game, at 8.8. But the Badgers uncharacteristically committed 11 by halftime against Nebraska. They also misfired on 16 of 18 3-point tries for the game, a cold streak that materialized during their losing streak.
Perhaps the most startling statistic was that Taylor, a senior All-American point guard, didn't register a single assist.
That last time Taylor tallied no assists occurred during the end of his sophomore season, on March 19, 2010, against Wofford in the NCAA Tournament -- a span of 54 games. His last regular-season game without an assist came on Feb. 19, 2009, during his freshman season against Indiana.
"I don't know what it really says," said Taylor, who scored a game-high 19 points. "We're just happy to have the win. It's something you don't really worry about. The numbers really don't mean anything. The only thing that matters is what side of the column you're in. If we're on the left side the majority of the time, we'll take that."
Despite Sunday's statistical anomalies, the Badgers did make plays when it counted. They shot 24 free throws to the Cornhuskers' two and out-rebounded Nebraska 42-28, including a key offensive rebound in the final minute that helped secure the victory.
"When you're in a tight game like that, a couple possessions, one possession, all those things matter," Badgers coach Bo Ryan said. "We got our fair share of them. Matter of fact, I think we got pretty much all of them. Maybe that's a result of the percentages. There weren't a whole lot of those opportunities before (in three conference losses). Sometimes they can come in bunches."
The Badgers will take whatever close plays they can get while fighting through another season in the chaotic Big Ten.
Follow Jesse Temple on Twitter.