MADISON, Wis. — Subtle differences in this season’s Wisconsin basketball team have collided to create an on-court product unlike any seen here in years. And it doesn’t take long to notice those distinctions aren’t always between the lines of play.
Take, for example, the post-game press conference following No. 4 Wisconsin’s 86-61 drubbing of Eastern Kentucky on Saturday afternoon at the Kohl Center — which allowed the Badgers to break the program record for most victories to begin a season in the modern era (12-0).
Wisconsin freshman forward Nigel Hayes, having played the best game of his young career with a season-high 17 points, was asked about the importance of being accepted by the team’s upperclassmen. He stared two seats over at senior guard Ben Brust.
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“As far as them accepting me, it’s a dream come true,” Hayes said. “I’ve just wanted to play with Ben. Since I saw his sixth-grade YMCA film, I knew I had to play with him.”
Cue the rimshot and laughter.
Wisconsin plays with a combination of intelligence, talent and overall offensive balance that has allowed the Badgers to ascend from No. 20 to No. 4 in the national rankings over one month. But the team also possesses a special intangible that isn’t always easily achieved, one that has helped UW attain its best start in 100 years: chemistry.
It can be seen in the way teammates interact with each other, the way veterans have embraced Hayes and freshman point guard Bronson Koenig — both of whom are now playing extensive minutes — and the generally composed disposition of the Badgers on the court.
Brust noted Wisconsin’s participation in a five-game Canadian exhibition tour in August played a vital role in establishing a tighter bond and helped to quicken the learning curve for the team. The 10 extra days of practice also gave players a point of reference when they returned for the season in late September.
“I just think overall we have a lot of different parts that come together and fit nicely,” said Brust, who buried five 3-pointers and scored a team-high 20 points on Saturday. “We’ve got two young freshmen who bring something different to the team. We’ve got freshmen, we’ve got sophomores, we’ve got juniors, we’ve got seniors. Just a lot of different pieces, and it all kind of is coming together.”
That much has been evident during the early portion of the season, as Wisconsin has found multiple ways to win. The Badgers have scored at least 86 points on four occasions and are averaging 74.7 points per game — the highest mark during coach Bo Ryan’s 13-year tenure. But they have also won grind-it-out games, such as a 48-38 nailbiter at Virginia, the fewest points Wisconsin has surrendered on the road since 1957.
According to a replication of the Ratings Percentage Index, Wisconsin ranks No. 2 in the country among 351 Division I teams. The Badgers have played eight teams ranked in the RPI top 100 — including Florida (28), St. Louis (39), Virginia (45), West Virginia (78) and Marquette (79) — which is more than any other program in the nation thus far.
The Badgers’ mental toughness and overall ability were on display early in Saturday’s game, when Wisconsin turned an 8-7 deficit into a 28-11 lead over the span of eight minutes with five different players scoring. The Colonels, who thrive on defensive pressure and ranked fourth nationally in steals per game, could do little to slow Wisconsin.
Eastern Kentucky coach Jeff Neubauer said his team had competed well in hostile environments on the road the past two seasons. Last year, the Colonels played at West Virginia, North Carolina State and Illinois. This season, Eastern Kentucky took VCU to overtime and was within one possession of NC State in the final five minutes.
“I think Wisconsin showed why they’re the fourth-ranked team in the country today,” Neubauer said. “They’re incredibly efficient at the offensive end and their defense is as disciplined a defense as I’ve ever seen. …
“Our team has really competed in this type of venue, but we’ve never run across a team like that.”
What has made Wisconsin successful, in addition to player relationships, is the team’s willingness to share the ball. Hayes became the eighth player this season to reach double figures in scoring, and all five starters are capable of leading the team in that category in any game. Center Frank Kaminksy set the program’s single-game scoring record with 43 points earlier this season and has scored the most points in three games. Brust and Sam Dekker have also done so three times, defensive stopper Josh Gasser twice and point guard Traevon Jackson once.
“We’re going to take whatever the defense gives us,” Ryan said. “The way we play hasn’t changed. They’re still opportunistic.”
The Badgers surpassed the record for wins to start a season in the modern era previously established by the 1993-94 team. The last team to start 12-0 came way back in 1913-14, a squad that finished 15-0 and won the Helms Foundation national championship.
Wisconsin will take a break for end-of-semester finals, and the Badgers do not play again for two weeks. That game will mark the last of nonconference play before Wisconsin enters the grind of the Big Ten season.
Given the way Wisconsin has played so far, does the time off come at a bad time?
“Only if you obsess about it,” Ryan said. “The way it’s set up, it’s perfect because we can’t change it. So, it’s perfect.”
Thanks to a unique blend of smarts, skill and chemistry, so is Wisconsin.