Good times continue to roll for fourth-ranked Badgers against Illinois
MADISON, Wis. — For two months, the narrative surrounding this year’s Wisconsin basketball team has centered on how much different it was from past squads.
Yes, the Badgers could defend and frustrate opponents — that was nothing new. But this team also wasn’t prone to prolonged cold stretches or milking the shot clock dry every possession. This team was actually exciting and could score with any bunch in college basketball.
Wednesday night provided yet another example of all this team’s capabilities — and it may have been the most impressive performance yet in a season shaping up to be unlike any in program history.
No. 4 Wisconsin obliterated No. 23 Illinois, 95-70, at the Kohl Center. It wasn’t the largest margin of victory this season or the Badgers’ highest point total. It was, however, a sign that this high-octane incarnate of Wisconsin basketball is for real against quality Big Ten competition. The Badgers scored at least 90 points in a conference game in regulation for the first time in 19 years. UW also has topped 70 points in seven consecutive games, which is the longest stretch since 2005-06.
In the process, Wisconsin has now set a record for the best start in school history. The Badgers (16-0, 3-0 Big Ten) are playing on an entirely different level from their opponents and continue to boost their resume for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
The beauty of it all, of course, is the team’s overall attitude about its accomplishments. Badgers forward Nigel Hayes said players had discussed a famous John Wooden quote that reads: "You can’t let praise or criticism get to you. It’s a weakness to get caught up in either one."
Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said he wasn’t even aware the team set the program record for wins to begin a season, though it would seem difficult to believe.
"I’d have gone home, maybe had a beverage and eaten something and gone to bed and not even brought it up until you just brought it up," Ryan said when asked about the mark. "For the players, what they’ve accomplished, they’ve earned. They get the credit. They put the sweat on the floor. I’m certainly proud of them. But you start thinking about that too much and it can go the other way in a hurry. So I’m proud of the players. I’m proud of the team. I’m proud of what they’ve accomplished to this point. And let’s try to keep it going."
Wisconsin has won its first 16 games on the strength of a remarkably balanced and well-oiled offense. Six times this season, Wisconsin has topped the 80-point mark, which already has surpassed what last year’s team achieved.
Illinois (12-3, 2-1) entered the game allowing an average of 61.5 points per game, and Wisconsin cruised past that mark with 12:36 remaining in the game on center Frank Kaminsky’s layup. The Badgers blew the doors off Wednesday’s game with a 20-0 run to turn a 13-10 lead into a 33-10 advantage over the span of 6 minutes, 3 seconds halfway through the first half.
The game, for all intents and purposes, was over, and Wisconsin took a 50-25 lead into halftime.
Five different players scored in double figures, led by guard Ben Brust’s 18 points. Sam Dekker (17), Kaminsky (15), Traevon Jackson (15) and Hayes (11) also scored in double digits.
How difficult is it to defend that many players capable of scoring from anywhere on the court?
"A monster," Illinois coach John Groce said afterward. "Hard. Going into the game, I felt like we played against some really good offensive teams. Oregon was good. Missouri was good. I thought Indiana was good offensively. We played against really good individual players and guards. We’ve been tested with different styles, I thought as a whole, watching them collectively, certainly the statistics indicate that even objectively. So I’m not just saying that subjectively. They’re the best offensive team we’ve had to defend all year to this juncture."
Badgers point guard Traevon Jackson noted this year’s team had put more of an emphasis on being aggressive earlier in the shot clock. He said the league was too difficult to not create more chances. But a look at the statistics reveals Wisconsin is simply a more efficient team.
The Badgers entered Wednesday’s game averaging 63.9 possessions per game — up only slightly from last year’s 62.3. Wisconsin, however, was averaging 1.18 points per possession this season, which is up from 1.04. After the game, UW’s scoring average was up to 76.4 points per game. Last year, that mark was 65.0 points per outing.
Put all those factors together, and Wisconsin is 16-0 for the first time ever. But with 15 regular season games remaining, a conference tournament and an NCAA tournament ahead, players are hardly ready to celebrate.
"It means a lot," Dekker said. "You take pride in what you’ve done to this point. You can’t really ignore it as a player. You try to go out and win every game. So far, we have. But it also means we have a lot of expectations to uphold.
"We have a lot more work to do. We’re nowhere near content by where we are at now, and now we have an even bigger target on our backs that people are going to want to knock you off. So now we’ve got to tighten up our laces a little more and get right to it and be ready for these next few games."
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