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To foul or not to foul in late-game situations might be a hot topic for some college basketball fans, but we have arrived at the time of the season when another matter can be worth observing. Specifically, which teams appear fresh, and which ones appear to be running low on fuel.
Coming off a pair of thrilling, extra-session games last week, a fairly hidden nugget that might have helped the Badgers is the conditioning of those on the floor. Credit the players for their work ethic, and it might not hurt to tip your cap to veteran strength and conditioning coach Scott Hettenbach as well as athletic trainer Henry Perez-Guerra.
Yes, Ben Brust needed to sink his Hail Mary 40-plus footer, but the energy to make that moment possible, while still having the gas to play five more minutes, says something about how this program goes about its business in the weight room and beyond.
In the double-overtime victory against Iowa, five Badgers played 40 minutes or more. Last Saturday against Michigan, Brust played 40. In the two games, he was on the floor 85 minutes. It was at minute No. 80 when Brust ran his curl route and took a perfect pass from Mike Bruesewitz, which led to the buzzer-beating heave.
That was the highlight, but Brust was able to make a little magic after spending the late morning and early afternoon digging in on defense, which included chasing some very good shooters. That does not happen without a ton of hard work away from the fans and TV cameras.
For a younger player, it is only natural to hit a wall. Hettenbach admits that can happen, especially with freshmen. Yet his objective during the season is to help players gain strength.
"You are either getting stronger or you are getting weaker," says Hettenbach, now in his 18th year with the men's basketball program. "Our goal is to get stronger. It is too early just to maintain. We will start to try to maintain when we get into the Big Ten tournament and the NCAAs.
"Those last few weeks we will really start to taper back, and just make sure guys have their legs and are fresh."
Let us take a look at a veteran whose hard work and smarts came in handy last week -- Jared Berggren. Against Iowa, the big man logged 43 minutes. As the game wore on, he became better, and ended up with 16 points, 14 rebounds and 7 blocks. The man was flirting with a triple-double.
Berggren followed that performance with a 13-point, 8-rebound outing against Michigan. In the final minute of regulation -- which would have been about his 75th minute of playing time last week--Berggren rammed his way down the lane for a nasty dunk, which he turned into a crucial three-point play.
Hard to do that if you are low on energy.
Hettenbach says a key for anyone is to be intelligent in your recovery. Berggren is very intelligent.
"When it is time to rest, rest hard. When it is time to train, train hard," Hettenbach said. "He (Berggren) has been around long enough, so he knows his body, and he knows what he needs to do. He is probably one of the more diligent kids we have ever had as far as doing post-workout, post-practice, post-lift recovery.
"Doing all the rehab he needs for his shoulder (an injury he dealt with early in his career) and any other thing that pops up."
Hettenbach says as the season has moved along, Berggren actually has added muscle and lost body fat.
"He is stronger now than he was from the first day of practice. In fact, most of our guys are that way."
Yes, there are seven regular-season games remaining, but given the Badgers' run of three games in six days, with two of those games going to overtime, it only makes sense to believe that conditioning has played an important role in keeping the Badgers in the race.
You still have to make the shots and get the stops, but in the midst of a grueling Big Ten schedule, the Badgers continue to do what is necessary both on and off the court to have a fighting chance.
With the high school basketball season winding down, five of Wisconsin's incoming freshmen are closing in on their final days as prep standouts. Two signees who have become close friends since making their commitment to UW are Ohio natives Vitto Brown and Nigel Hayes, who were recently featured in an article by the Toledo Blade
(Photo Courtesy of The Blade/Andy Morrison).
Vitto Brown: 6-8, 240, F, Bowling Green (Ohio), HS
An honorable mention all-state pick as a junior, Vitto Brown is averaging 21.5 points, 13.0 rebounds, 3.0 blocks and shooting 61.7% from the field this season at Bowling Green High School. Last weekend, Brown went head-to-head with Michigan signee Mark Donnal (Whitehouse, Ohio) and came away with a win, tallying 25 points, 16 rebounds and six blocks. The 6-foot-8 forward surpassed the 1,000-point career scoring mark on Feb. 2, recording a 39-point, 16-rebound effort in a 77-61 win against Medina. Brown averaged 20 points and 12 rebounds per game last season. (VIDEO: Vitto Brown Highlights
Riley Dearring: 6-5, 180, G, Minnetonka, Minn. (HS)
Riley Dearring is averaging 18.8 points, 6.2 assists and 3.0 rebounds per game this season for Minnetonka High School. Dearring, who recently eclipsed the 1,000-point career scoring plateau, returned from breaking his wrist a couple of weeks ago to score 17 points in a 73-61 win over rival Hopkins. A four-year varsity player for the Skippers, Dearring earned All-Lake Conference honors last season as a junior after averaging 15 points, 4.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game. (VIDEO: Riley Dearring Highlights
Nigel Hayes: 6-7, 230, F, Toledo, Ohio (Whitmer HS)
A three-time MVP for Whitmer High School in Toledo, Nigel Hayes
scored his 1,000th career point in December and is averaging 16.0 points and 10.0 rebounds per game for Whitmer during his senior campaign. Hayes averaged nearly a double-double last season (14.0 points, 9.0 rebounds), while becoming the school's all-time leader in blocked shots. He earned first-team Northwest District selection and second-team all-state honoree and was named to the 2012 OHSSA Division I State Tournament Team. (VIDEO: Nigel Hayes Highlights
Jordan Hill: 6-3, 175, G, Pasadena, Calif. (Exeter Academy, N.H.)
A post-grad from Pasadena, Calif., Jordan Hill is tallying 7.5 points, 8.0 assists and 4.0 rebounds per game for Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H. Hill graduated from LaSalle High School in Pasadena, Calif. in May earning first-team all-Del Rey League honors as a senior. He posted per game averages of 15.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 2.0 blocks and 2.0 steals and was a second-team All-California Interscholastic Federation honoree.
Bronson Koenig: 6-3, 170, G, La Crosse, Wis. (Aquinas)
La Crosse, Wis., native Bronson Koenig is a nominee for the 2013 McDonald's All-American game and is averaging 16.1 points during his senior campaign after missing the majority of his junior year with an injury. Koenig tallied a game-high 25 points this past week as Aquinas defeated Madison Edgewood, 75-49. Despite missing several games, Koenig averaged 18 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game last season. Koenig's breakout season came as a sophomore when he earned first-team All-State accolades after leading La Crosse Aquinas to the 2010 Division III State Championship. The co-conference Player of the Year that season, Koenig racked up 17.0 points and 3.0 assists per game while shooting over 50 percent from the field. (VIDEO: Bronson Koenig Highlights
In the years I have written this blog, I have used the words "fine" and "line" rather frequently.
Here I go again.
For the third straight game, and for the fourth time in conference play, the Badgers have failed to get out of the 40s. Yet they have won two of those four games, and they remain in the mix for a high finish in the league race.
After Tuesday's loss at Ohio State, that might seem odd, but it is very much the case.
What might also seem odd is that, offensively challenged as the Badgers can be, their shooting numbers are very similar to a year ago.
In conference games, Wisconsin's field goal and 3-point percentages are nearly identical to last season. In fact, the Badgers are averaging one more bucket per game than last winter. The difference is at the free throw line.
The league-low free throw percentage is well documented. After not even getting to the foul line in Columbus, the Badgers are averaging 13 attempts per game and making 6.7. Last year, UW attempted 16.7 free throws and knocked down 13 a game (77 percent).
That is more than a half-dozen points off the board. Still, Bo Ryan's team is 5-3 in the Big Ten, which is exactly where they stood at this time last year.
Second-half defensive struggles against Ohio State aside, this group continues to grind away on that end of the floor, and more often than not, it continues to hold its own on the glass.
However, as the Buckeyes demonstrated earlier this week, a defensive breakdown here, or a turnover that leads to easy points there, can mean the difference between victory and defeat. Even if it happens on just a handful of possessions, as was the case at Value City Arena.
It is worth noting that Tuesday's game was the fifth in the last six outings against a top 25 team. While college basketball rankings have a much different meaning than college football polls, the point here is that the Badgers have had quite a stretch of tests against opponents many consider to be the big boys of the sport.
For the season, Wisconsin has faced seven nationally-ranked programs, more than anyone else in the nation.
That is not to suggest that UW is about to enter Easy Street. Far from it.
Up next is Illinois. In the first meeting in Madison, the Badgers put together a brilliant performance in a convincing win. Yet this is the same Illini squad that drilled Ohio State by 19 points and also won at Gonzaga.
Ranked or unranked, when Illinois is playing at its best, it can play with anyone.
So can the Badgers.
As we approach the halfway point of conference play, it is becoming clear that, in the Big Ten, the grueling schedule has a way of keeping every team in the league humble.
Let's face it, so far there appears to be very little separating first place from the middle of the pack. Some teams might look the part more than others, but the results suggest that looks can be deceiving.
Once again, the Badgers walk a fine line. However, in the nation's top conference, there is reason to believe they are not the only team fitting that description.
Yes, they need to somehow find a way to shoot straight. They need to find a way to get to the foul line, and then finish the deal when they get there.
While far from perfect, on most occasions the Badgers are doing enough things well to at least give themselves a chance. I still believe that if they keep guarding -- and grinding away -- they can make the second half of the Big Ten season very interesting.
This weekend, Bo Ryan and the Wisconsin coaches are participating in the annual Suits and Sneakers awareness weekend
By wearing sneakers with their suits, the coaching staffs from both teams are trying to raise awareness of the many ways people can reduce their risk of cancer, like eating right, exercising, making healthy lifestyle choices, and following the American Cancer Society's recommended cancer screening guidelines.
'Dress up' the Kohl Center Saturday
- Fans are encouraged to help up 'dress up' the Kohl Center by wearing today's 'Bo Tie' t-shirts provided by Coaches vs. Cancer Wisconsin as part of the Suits and Sneakers weekend.
- People not attending Saturday's game can purchase the Bo-Tie t-shirt at the UW Bookstore online, or at Bucky's Locker room with all proceeds going to Coaches vs. Cancer.
This year's gala will take place on Saturday, May 4, 2013 at the Kohl Center.
In 2013, Coaches vs. Cancer Wisconsin will hold its 6th Annual Coaches vs. Cancer Wisconsin Gala, an evening filled with dinner, a silent auction and impressive keynote speakers. Past galas have featured special guests like Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim and ESPN's Jay Bilas.
Since its inception, Coaches vs. Cancer Wisconsin has raised over $1 million for the fight against cancer. The funds raised go directly towards the American Cancer Society's mission of celebrating more Birthdays.
Contact CvC Wisconsin at 608-662-7555 or CVCWI@cancer.org for additional information.
Charity Stripe Challenge
Earlier this year, Bo and his wife, Kelly Ryan, witnessed over 1,600 UW-Madison students brave undesirable weather conditions to participate in the Charity Stripe Challenge, raising a grand total of $41,279.
"My wife and I did this event because we firmly believe that with enough funding, a cure for cancer will be found. We took this as another opportunity to have our team interact with the students and involve our campus in this event. What a fun time and for a great cause. I figure one of these half-court shots might be the difference in curing cancer."
Nearly all UW athletic teams were represented as well as numerous campus organizations, including the Homecoming Committee and Colleges Against Cancer. In total, 36 UW students made half-court shots, which were worth a $1,000 donation each and countless students made the $10 free throw.
Since there is way too much season remaining, I will try to spare you the "I told you so" mumbo jumbo. But for the 5,000th time, I will say in regard to the Wisconsin basketball program -- the team you see in November and December isn't necessarily what you see in January, February and March.
In the last two games, Bo Ryan's group has given us prime examples of why the Badgers have been able to sustain such a high level of success.
The non-conference schedule included those humbling trips to Gainesville and Milwaukee, not to mention a pair of tough games in Las Vegas, which Wisconsin managed to split. Throw in a close loss to Virginia at the Kohl Center, and many were left wondering whether the Badgers' NCAA tournament streak would end. Who knows? But doesn't Wisconsin deserve the benefit of the doubt?
History tells us it does.
Overreaction is common, and most of us are guilty of it. The good news is Ryan stresses the opposite. That would seem to be one of the many keys to his success. The players and coaches simply keep working. No panic. No gimmicks. Just keep striving to get better.
The younger players continue to grow, and the veterans are playing like veterans. It helps to get healthier, and that is happening with Mike Bruesewitz, who embraced the eardrum-bursting noise at Assembly Hall with a joy that should remind us that sports really can be kind of fun.
Put it all together, and you have national attention-grabbing victories against Illinois and Indiana that has the rest of the Big Ten looking up at Wisconsin in the league standings.
I would imagine excitement is building for this team, but if you think the flight home from Bloomington was a rowdy ride, think again. Sure, there was a nice locker room celebration, and understandably the boys got a charge out of watching Jared Berggren bulldoze down the lane for his high-flying, rim-rattling, posterizing dunk.
Yet by the time the wheels were up (on the plane, not Berggren -- did you know he had "ups" like that?), it was time to relax and appreciate the night, with the understanding there is much more work to be done.
They refuse to overreact.
That is a good idea because Iowa is waiting. You know, the team that swept Wisconsin a year ago, and has the entire week to get ready for Saturday night's game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
They'll just keep trying to get better. Never too high. Never too low.
Before I wrap up this week's blog, it is time to give a little shout out to the scout team. Players such as Dan Fahey, Jordan Smith, Duje Dukan, J.D. Wise, Evan Anderson, as well as Zak Showalter and Zach Bohannon, who will run with the scouts as well as the regular rotation players.
Especially in these last two games, it has been a formidable challenge to mimic athletic teams such as the Illini and the Hoosiers. The scouts continue to do their jobs extremely well.
There is a long way to go, and this figures to be an extremely close Big Ten race, but on Tuesday night the Badgers served notice that they have every intention of being a serious player -- again. They have dealt with a few bumps, and realistically, there will be some more along the way.
That's OK. The Badgers are demonstrating that they know how to absorb a punch, and deliver a few counterpunches of their own.
Just a week ago the Badgers were nowhere to be found on the
national radar. Now after a pair of wins over top-15 foes, including UW's 64-59
upset at second-ranked Indiana on Tuesday, Wisconsin finds itself directly in the
Here are a few things being said about the Badgers:
After the Badgers' 64-59 win at No. 2 Indiana on Tuesday
night, you can lose the thought of Wisconsin having anything resembling a
"down" season. And you can repeat the phrase until it hums like a
Never doubt Wisconsin.
- Eammon Brennan (ESPN.com)
Wisconsin was trending on Twitter Tuesday night, here's a sampling of why:
Yes, some of the numbers get your attention, and not in a very good way.
• 38 percent field goal shooting
• 20 percent from 3-point range
• 41 percent from the free throw line
Playing in what many consider the toughest league in America, and the Badgers' early statistics might appear to be the ingredients for an 0-2 start.
Instead, Wisconsin's record is just the opposite in the Big Ten play.
No, the games against Penn State and Nebraska were not pretty. Not exactly a "work of art," as Jared Berggren deadpanned after Sunday's game in Lincoln. Who cares? The Badgers found a way to win, and once again, found a way to win on the road.
In Bo Ryan's time as Wisconsin's head coach, the Badgers have had more road success in Big Ten play than any other team in the league.
How did they add to that total at Nebraska?
"We did it with tough defense," said Ryan. "We got on the glass. We took care of the ball."
The Badgers really have taken care of the ball. They are guilty of just 10 turnovers in the first two conference games. In that regard, at least they are giving themselves a chance to score. The low scoring totals have little if anything to do with sloppy play. They simply are missing a ton of shots -- but they are winning anyway.
"How are we going to have to get better?" Ryan asks. "Shoot it a little bit better. Finish stronger around the basket. Get some confidence back at the free throw line, which I think can happen."
For those wondering -- yes, this team spends ample time in practice at the free throw line. They will continue to do that. Even if the team percentage was closer to 80 than 40, the Badgers would spend a lot of time at the line. That is how they go about practice. They try to be consistent in everything they do.
"I have been extremely proud of our players in past years," said Ryan. "When we have hit tough snags, or hit shooting slumps, that guys have been able to work themselves through it."
"We always have to keep in mind that other teams have to do it too."
Clearly, the Big Ten is not the only conference where scoring has been difficult. Take a look at last weekend's Big East scores, and you will see some games in the 40s and 50s. It happens, and while the winning teams are aware there is work to do on the offensive end, I doubt many of them are offering up apologizes for failing to score 50 points, but still getting out of the arena with a victory.
As for the free throw shooting, keep in mind that, last year, Ryan Evans shot 72 percent from the line. There is documented evidence that he can knock down his throws. He hit his final foul shots in Sunday's win. Maybe that can start to get him on the right track.
He has been willing to make fun of himself, and he also knows that when in doubt, opposing teams will start hacking him at crunch time. Evans will continue to work on his shooting touch, and hopefully that percentage will start heading in the right direction.
In the meantime, his head coach stresses that it is a good idea to embrace the challenge.
"I kind of think it's exciting for a person to work through a problem like this," Ryan said. "I think it will help (Evans) in the long run overcome a lot of other things."
So far this team has overcome the inability to shoot very straight. Defense, rebounding and protecting the ball have helped the Badgers to a 2-0 start. If and when the shots drop on a more regular basis, perhaps this team has a chance to become a bit more dangerous.
When Wisconsin and Nebraska meet on the hardwood this season, both teams will be wearing special adidas "White Out" uniforms. The first such meeting comes this Sunday in Lincoln, Neb.
Similar to the adidas jerseys worn by NBA teams on Christmas day, both team's uniforms on Sunday will feature a solid color blocking of team logos, word marks and numbers with minimal accent color and shimmer finish for a bold on-court look. UW's uniform will be completely white uniform with white lettering and numbers accented by red trim. The Huskers will wear a red-on-red variation
Wisconsin is also scheduled to wear the white-on-white jerseys when Nebraska makes a return trip to the Kohl Center on Feb. 26.
Sunday's game between UW and NU tips off at 3:30 p.m. (CT) on the Big Ten Network.
This week your friendly blogger will take a break from all things Badger football and focus on the basketball squad.
Yes, at times it has been a rough non-conference season. When you consider the season-ending knee injury to Josh Gasser, and Mike Bruesewitz being in and out of the lineup, the Badgers became a much younger team.
Given that, one might argue the Badgers have over-scheduled in the non-conference.
Take a look at the rest of the Big Ten. Five teams in the league played one true road game. One team will not have a true road tussle until conference play begins.
The Badgers are one of six Big Ten teams to play two games in what can be termed hostile environments. Four of the six were sent packing for one game as part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
The other two, Wisconsin and Illinois, simply scheduled a couple of trips on their own. Prior to winning the Maui Invitational, the Illini stopped in Honolulu to play Hawaii. Illinois also owns the Big Ten's most impressive road win to date after beating Gonzaga, 85-74.
It is fair to suggest that the Badgers' roadies at Florida and at Marquette are as tough as it gets in the Big Ten and probably beyond. While the results were not what Bo Ryan and company would prefer, it could end up making them stronger.
The Badgers are going through some growing pains, and everyone has a chance to observe them. The backcourt is young, and at times, can struggle. Most young players have their ups and downs, but fans should be encouraged by the upside of this group.
In the recent game against Green Bay, the Badgers recovered from a very bumpy start. Providing a spark was redshirt freshman George Marshall, who drilled a couple of 3-point shots. Traevon Jackson is showing signs of settling, as he was turnover-free and had two steals against the Phoenix. Those two continued to show progress last Saturday against Milwaukee.
And let's face it, there is a buzz when freshmen Sam Dekker and Zak Showalter step on the floor. They both continue to learn what Bo Ryan wants done and how he wants it done, but how do you not love the energy of these first-year players? You want to try to get to a loose ball before Showalter? Do so at your own risk.
As the head coach has stated, everyone needs to bring a little more to the table, both the veterans and the rookies. While Bruesewitz fights through a brutally frustrating stretch of injuries, fellow seniors Ryan Evans and Jared Berggren are fully aware of what they need to do. Both are proven players in this league, and no doubt, they are eager to crank up the volume as conference play approaches.
I guess I have been around Bo Ryan's teams long enough to know that what you see in November and December isn't necessarily what you see later in the season. His teams have a seemingly uncommon ability to improve. With the Big Ten looking to be as good as it has been in quite awhile, getting better is a necessity this winter.
This is where such a difficult pre-conference schedule can help. The venues in Gainesville and Milwaukee were loud, and there was little in the way of Badger Love in either location. The players have now been exposed to that type of atmosphere.
They will have faced Creighton, Virginia and yes, the state's other Division I schools. I include Green Bay and Milwaukee because you have to figure Wisconsin is a game they circle, and they always have a thorough scouting report on the Badgers.
The conference season will provide few, if any, so-called breathers. The Badgers' schedule through the last month-and-a-half could very well have them more prepared than most for what lies ahead.
History tells us it is worth watching to find out.
Defending the 3-point line
Wednesday night's top-25 match-up between Wisconsin and Florida is a case of strength vs. strength. Last season the Gators led the NCAA in made 3-pointers per game with an average of 9.5 per outing and shooting at rate of 38 percent. Florida's backcourt of Kenny Boyton (266) and Mike Rosario (187) have made a combined 453 3-pointers in their careers. To put that into perspective, UW's active leader in made triples is Ben Brust... with 62.
The good news is, Wisconsin ranked second in all of the NCAA in fewest 3-pointers allowed a year ago, surrendering just 3.6 per game and allowing opponents to made just 29 percent (11th in the country). In fact, only once did a UW opponent make at least nine 3-pointers in a game last season, and that was Iowa with 10.
Putting up a fence along the perimeter is pivotal vs. the Gators.
Two of the best BIG shooters
A one-on-one match-up to keep an eye on in this game is the battle between Florida's 6-foot-10 forward Erik Murphy and the Badgers' 6-foot-10 forward Jared Berggren. What you'll be watching is two of the best big-man shooters in all of college basketball.
Among players 6-foot-10 or taller, Murphy and Berggren finished first and third, respectively in made 3-pointers last season. Murphy knocked down 59-of-140 shots from downtown and Berggren connected on 42-of-121.
Tempo, tempo, tempo
Wednesday night's game figures to be a baptism by fire for Wisconsin's young backcourt. Florida is a team conditioned on pressure defense and forcing turnovers. And after seeing the cramped nature of the O'Connell Center (the O-Dome), I can understand why. The sidelines are so close to the court, they feel like extra defenders.
The Gators - who forced 19 turnovers in their season opener - forced 10 or more turnovers in 29 of their 37 games a year ago. In recent memory, protecting the ball has been a major strength of the Wisconsin program. In fact, over the last three seasons, the Badgers have finished No. 1, No. 1 and No. 2 in the nation in fewest turnovers per game.
But that was the Jordan Taylor era.
Now, redshirt freshman George Marshall and sophomore Treavon Jackson are thrust into the spotlight, and into the blender. How the young guys handle it will be of great interest.
When thinking about the tempo of this game, think about UW's game at North Carolina early in the season a year ago. The Tarheels wanted to play fast and loose and turn it into a high-possession game (at least 140 total possessions). Florida will have similar ambitions.
In Chapel Hill, the Badgers dictated the tempo and kept the game to just 123 total possessions. That kept Wisconsin in it until the end, when UNC pulled out the 60-57 win.
Look for a similar recipe in Gainesville if the Badgers are going to pull off the early-season upset.