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Lucas at Large: Turnaround has turned Badgers into contender

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MBB_120124_Bruesewitz_Mike.jpgGrowth is not only a function of player development but team building.

January is usually a good starting point to take stock of any growing pains, too.

"Anytime you're into a season, especially conference play,'' said Indiana's Tom Crean, "and you can feel like you're getting better and improving, then, things are moving forward.

"Getting better is physical ... it's mental ... it's every aspect of it.''

Nobody has gotten better in January than Wisconsin, a winner of four straight games. That's the longest active winning streak in the conference. Minnesota has won three in a row.

Also consider that the Badgers started off the month mired in a three-game losing streak.

On Monday's Big Ten coaches' teleconference, Bruce Weber noted that his Illini had the misfortune "to play a Wisconsin team that had struggled and now is playing about as well as anybody.''

After Sunday's loss to the Badgers at Assembly Hall in Champaign -- where Illinois had won 14 in a row -- Weber confessed, "They made the plays ... they out-toughed us and out-hustled us.''

That was personified by one possession in the second half -- what UW's Mike Bruesewitz labeled "a mad scramble" -- during which Bruesewitz and Josh Gasser both hit the floor.

"Josh made a heckuva dive,'' Bruesewitz said. "He dove probably about eight feet for the ball and gave us a shot. Then I got on top of it.

"I looked back and I was going to throw it to Jared (Berggren) and then I looked up the floor and I saw Ben (Brust), Jordan (Taylor) and (Illinois' D.J.) Richardson.

"I thought, 'All right, I'll get it to Ben.' I tried to throw it as hard as I could but I was on my butt. So I did the best that I could to get it to him and he ended up finishing (with a lay-up at the other end).

"It was a good series of events and that kind of changed the game for us.''

Purdue's Matt Painter saw a change in the Badgers coming long before that.

"I thought they had some breakdowns offensively in a couple of their (Big Ten) losses but a lot of what they did was they just missed some shots,'' Painter said before facing Wisconsin on Jan. 12.

"They had some guys shooting low percentages that are capable of shooting high percentages. We gave them respect. We talked about not giving them rhythm shots.

"But they got too many early and got their heads up and that ended up being the difference.''

In winning for only the third time in the 45-year history of Mackey Arena, the Badgers snapped their losing streak and generated much-needed momentum and confidence for their turnaround.

Wisconsin is the only Big Ten team with a winning record (3-1) in league road games.

"Knock on wood, we've just got to keep it going,'' said senior point guard Jordan Taylor. "I can't put my finger on it. But we just have to keep trying to find ways to win on the road.''

Do the Badgers get more energized when they play in hostile environments like they have at Purdue and Illinois? Do they play with the proverbial chip on their shoulder on the road?

Taylor nodded and said, "I think a lot of the guys on our team weren't high-profile recruits or touted for their basketball ability. I think we just like proving people wrong.''

Part of the mission statement is outhustling or out-toughing opponents.

"Generally our motto has been, 'Find a way,''' Taylor related. "It's coach (Bo) Ryan's motto: scrap, fight, and claw. Do what you've got to do -- home or away -- and just try to find a way to win.''

Taylor has his own motto.

"Always work hard and never let anyone tell you that you can't do something,'' he said. "If you have a goal or dream set your sights on it and work your butt off to try and get it.

"Even if it doesn't work out, at least you gave it your best effort.''

Taylor relishes such gung-ho, one-for-all, all-for-one commitments.

"I just love being around the college atmosphere,'' he said. "High school doesn't compare to college in that you're around the guys here so much -- like 45 weeks of the year.

"You see these guys every day and they become like brothers.''

Ryan has admired Taylor's perseverance while transitioning with new starters this season.

"Point guard play is affected tremendously -- or more so than people realize -- by the other players around them,'' said Ryan, who played the position himself in high school and college.

"In all fairness, Jordan is playing with guys on the front line (Berggren, Bruesewitz, Ryan Evans) who logged less minutes (last season) than probably any front line in the Big Ten.

"You have to give Jordan credit for helping to bring these guys along and to include them in the mix -- for him to get comfortable with them and for them to get comfortable with him.

"You're into January now, so hopefully all those parts are meshing ... What I'm hoping is that we're maturing as a team and we can continue to move in that direction.

"It's a different team (this year) and we've had to find different ways to get things done.''

One constant has been defense. Opponents have struggled to score against the Badgers.

"Defensively our guys have bought in all year, which gives us a chance,'' Ryan said. "But if we're not shooting the ball well, we're like every other team in the country.

"If we can get consistent scoring from other positions (other than Taylor) then obviously we're a much better team. We're going to need that if we want to make things happen the rest of the season.

"Three-point shooting can be fickle. Sometimes the rim looks huge and other times it looks pretty small. Mentally you have to have players who believe the next shot is going in.

"If we keep doing that we have a chance to get some things done.''

You don't have to sell Crean on what the Badgers have been doing well lately.

"They know how to play and they've got a great guard certainly in Jordan Taylor,'' he said. "But they've got numerous guys who can play at a high level.

"When they've been at their best, they've had very good balance. That's what stands out to me. They just keep moving forward and that's a tribute to Bo and his staff and the continuity in the program.

"From what I've seen, there's no question they get great dribble penetration (from Taylor) and they're going to put five guys out on the court, as usual, that can score with range.

"Their system is very solid and strong.''

So is the Big Ten -- from top to bottom. There doesn't appear to be any easy out.

"If you don't have you're 'A' game every night, you're going to get beat,'' said Iowa's Fran McCaffrey.

Added Weber, "I'm not sure what's an upset, if there are upsets. Your main guys have got to play and be consistent if you're going to have success in the league.

"You can't have any off days.''

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Great article about Big 10 Basketball!!! Go Badgers!!