MADISON, Wis. — The doors were blown off Wisconsin’s defense when the Badgers last played Minnesota three weeks ago. And to add more misery following UW’s worst defensive performance of the season, an airport gate crashed on the team bus, prompting police to file an accident report before players and coaches could board a plane back to Madison.
In every facet, literal and figurative, Wisconsin was breaking down and stuck.
The sense of accomplishment, then, after No. 21 Wisconsin held off Minnesota for a 78-70 victory at the Kohl Center on Thursday night in the rematch was considerable. The Badgers showed they had made great strides on defense, which has been a staple in the program since Bo Ryan became coach 13 years ago.
"We got stops when we needed to at certain times that were good in parts of the game," said Badgers guard Ben Brust, who buried all four of his 3-point attempts and scored a team-best 20 points. "We didn’t give them too many second-chance points. Points in the paint were only (20). We’ve given up 40 at times. So it’s good to keep that number lower."
Indeed, Minnesota scored 48 points in the paint during the first matchup en route to an 81-68 victory in Minneapolis. It marked the most points Wisconsin had surrendered all season, while the Gophers (16-9, 5-7 Big Ten) shot 58.9 percent from the field.
On Thursday, Minnesota shot 45.0 percent, boosted primarily by a bevy of jumpers late in the game that trimmed a 15-point deficit to five. Still, the difference in Wisconsin’s defensive output was night and day.
"Polar opposites," Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said. "They did a great job of not allowing us to throw the ball into the post where we really had our way with that at home. They did a great job adjusting. That’s why coach Ryan’s won as many games as he’s won. They really prepared them in that regard."
Ryan wasn’t willing to acknowledge Wisconsin did anything differently other than to say his team simply played better. But what has transpired over the previous six games — since that eye-opening defeat at Minnesota prompted associate head coach Greg Gard to say the defense leaked like a "sieve" — has been quite noticeable.
During that stretch, opponents are hitting 41.5 percent of shots (135 of 325). That came on the heels of a three-game losing streak in which the Badgers allowed at least 50-percent shooting in every game.
Wisconsin (20-5, 7-5) made a point to front the post and create help on the back side Thursday. The Badgers also did a better job handling on-ball screens and not allowing the Gophers’ guards much space to rise for jumpers.
Gophers backup center Maurice Walker, who terrorized Wisconsin with 18 points and nine rebounds last game, finished with five points and two rebounds.
"Frank (Kaminsky) and I, we didn’t take too kindly to what happened when we played them at Minnesota," Badgers forward Nigel Hayes said. "They came in and established a great post presence. Walker came in, he had 14 first-half points, which gave them an energy and spark to go on a run the rest of the game. We wanted to make sure this game they didn’t establish that presence."
Ryan said weeks ago that teams in the Big Ten would eventually take advantage of Wisconsin’s defensive deficiencies. But the Badgers’ ability to adjust as part of a three-game winning streak has big-picture implications.
Wisconsin has never finished worse than fourth in the Big Ten during Ryan’s tenure. A loss to Minnesota, and the Badgers would have fallen into a three-way tie for fourth — which essentially would have meant sixth place based on tiebreaking losses to both Ohio State and Minnesota.
Instead, Wisconsin finds itself in sole possession of fourth place in the Big Ten for the moment, one half game behind Iowa for third. The improved defensive performance is a key reason for the turnaround, which could put Wisconsin back on course to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.
"We’ve got a lot of work to do defensively, and we try to do it every day," Ryan said. "Because I see things that maybe other people don’t. And maybe other people do. Who knows? But that doesn’t matter because what we’re doing when we’re trying to practice and work on certain things has to happen out there on the floor when we’re together."