MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin’s basketball team is playing at such an exceptionally high level that the postgame scene most days has come to this: Opposing Big Ten coaches aren’t even that upset about losing.
Yes, they’d certainly like to earn a season-defining victory against the conference’s very best. But almost to a man, each coach that has left the Kohl Center this season has essentially done the same thing: throw up his hands and marvel at the play of this year’s Badgers, far and away the class of the league.
Add Minnesota coach Richard Pitino to that growing list after No. 5 Wisconsin handled Minnesota 63-53 at the Kohl Center on Saturday afternoon. The Gophers led for less than two minutes of game action, fell behind by eight points at halftime and never edged any closer from there.
"That’s about as good a team in the country," Pitino said afterward. "They do a great job of not beating themselves by not fouling and not turning the ball over. I thought our guys gave great energy today. I thought we were very positive. We didn’t get down. We just lost to a really good team."
Wisconsin (25-2, 13-1 in Big Ten play) won its 10th consecutive conference game, which marks the longest league winning streak for the Badgers since 1940-41. And it moved UW to within one game of capturing at least a share of its first regular-season Big Ten title since 2008.
Badgers center Frank Kaminsky, a national Player of the Year candidate, scored a game-high 21 points with five rebounds, and point guard Bronson Koenig added a career-best 17 points on a day in which Wisconsin didn’t shoot at its best. Still, the effort was more than enough to pull away from Minnesota.
"We felt in control pretty much the whole second half," Kaminsky said. "We knew they were trying to catch us the whole time, and we were getting some easy buckets and scoring and running some clock on offense. It was just one of those games where we got the lead and we never looked back and tried to grind it out from there."
Wisconsin’s defensive performance once again proved critical. Wisconsin guard Josh Gasser held Minnesota’s leading scorer, Andre Hollins, to two points on 1-of-8 shooting from the field. Gasser also eclipsed the 1,000-point mark for his career and became only the second Wisconsin player with 1,000 points, 500 rebounds and 250 assists, joining Michael Finley.
"It starts with the scouting report," Gasser said of his effort on Hollins. "I felt extremely prepared in what he was going to do and what they were looking for offensively, so especially the first half, I felt like I was one step ahead. I knew what was coming, what to look for and just chasing those screens on him."
Minnesota (16-12, 5-10) lost its third consecutive league game and has failed to make any gains from last year’s team, which won the postseason NIT. Afterward, Pitino sounded as though he had plenty to sort out with his roster during the stretch run. He started Nate Mason in place of DeAndre Mathieu, for example, because Pitino didn’t like Mathieu’s attitude following a loss earlier this week to Northwestern.
"We’re going to play the best players and the guys who are playing hard, playing well and playing with a great attitude," Pitino said. "If it’s the older guys, it’ll be the older guys. If it’s the younger guys, it’ll be the younger guys."
Mason, Mathieu and Carlos Morris scored 11 points apiece for Minnesota. But it likely wouldn’t have mattered what lineup combination Pitino used against Wisconsin.
"They play perfectly for their personnel," Pitino said. "You’ve got to make jump shots, and when you don’t you’re not going to win. They’re a tough matchup."
Pitino isn’t alone in his assessment of Wisconsin’s team this year. Here’s a sampling of what other Big Ten coaches have said about the Badgers:
Illinois coach John Groce: "At this stage, they’re the best team of the three that we’ve played the last three years, and I thought the last two were pretty good."
Northwestern coach Chris Collins: "They’re as good a team as we’ve played all year."
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery: "It takes tremendous concentration and effort to beat a team of this caliber, with this much experience. They’re very efficient with their passing and their ball movement, very physical defensively."
Nebraska coach Tim Miles: "These guys are like robots out there. They’re like machines. They just go."
Victories have come relatively easy this season for Wisconsin, which has won all but four games by double figures. Now, the Badgers must prepare for a stretch that includes Maryland, Minnesota and Ohio State on the road and Michigan State at home. If UW wants to reach its postseason goals, Badgers coach Bo Ryan recognizes that begins now.
"If you look at the schedule, who has the toughest close?" Ryan asked. "It’s us. So our guys know that. Roll up their sleeves and let’s just get each one that we can."