Badgers enter Big Ten play on a roll
Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky have given Wisconsin's frontcourt depth and the fourth-ranked Badgers have used a balanced attack to enter Big Ten play with a perfect record.
Wisconsin was picked in the preseason writers' poll to finish fourth in the Big Ten after losing its top three frontcourt players and rebounders from last season, but completed the nonconference portion of its schedule with a 13-0 record, the school's best start since the 1913-14 season.
The Badgers have four players averaging in double figures and all five starters have led the team in scoring at least once going into their first conference game Thursday at Northwestern (7-6).
“That makes us a tough team to scout,” said Dekker, a 6-foot-7 forward who was named to the Big Ten All-Freshman team last season. “You kind of pick your poison sometimes, who you're going to leave open and who you're trying to key on defensively. I think that's what makes it tough. We have five guys on the court that are skilled enough to put the ball in the hoop and create shots for each other. I definitely think we're a tougher team to guard this year.”
Dekker leads the team in scoring with 14.5 and rebounds with 6.2, but Kaminsky has been a surprise after averaging 4.2 points and 10.3 minutes per game. The 7-foot junior is shooting 56 percent from the field, averaging 14.2 points and 5.8 rebounds, including a 43-point outburst in a 103-85 victory over North Dakota.
The Badgers' three-guard backcourt has been bolstered by the return of two-year starter Josh Gasser, who missed last season with a torn ACL in his left knee. Gasser is averaging 9.0 points and 32.2 minutes per game.
Guard Ben Brust, the only senior in the rotation, is averaging 12.5 points and shooting 44 percent from 3-point range. Junior point guard Traevon Jackson, thrust into a prominent role last season after Gasser's injury, is averaging 10.7 points.
“That experience, especially for Traevon Jackson, was huge,” said associate head coach Greg Gard. “It wasn't always pleasant to go through at the time when it was happening and he was learning on the fly. But, to be able to put that in the rearview mirror and learn from those experiences, now we can take those and apply them to being better and more experienced, especially in the backcourt.”
The Badgers top two reserves are emerging freshman Nigel Hayes, a 6-7 forward, and Bronson Koenig. a 6-3 guard.
Wisconsin is sandwiched in the rankings by two other conference teams, third-ranked Ohio State and No. 5 Michigan State.
“I think there's plenty of teams that can win this league and any team can win on any given night,” said Dekker, who has worked to improve defensively. “I think we have a team that's ready for that. I think we have a team that has prepared itself and has worked hard to get to the point where we're at. But also, we're a team that's still hungry and not content with where we're at. We have a lot of work left.”
Last season, the Badgers tied for fourth in the Big Ten with Michigan at 12-6, but advanced to the conference tournament title game before losing to Ohio State. In the NCAA tournament, the fifth-seeded Badgers lost their opener to 12th-seeded Mississippi, 57-46, going just 15 of 59 from the field.
This season, the Badgers have shown they can grind out a victory when not shooting well, winning 48-38 at Virginia despite making just 15 of 52 shots.
After Northwestern, the Badgers host Iowa and Illinois at the Kohl Center, where they have lost just 18 games in 13 seasons under coach Bo Ryan. A scheduling quirk also favors Wisconsin, which plays Ohio State and Michigan State just once, with both games in Madison.
“With the mindset that we have, I think it should be no surprise if we're up there at the end of the year,” Dekker said. “But, we've got a lot of good teams to play and a lot of teams trying to knock us off. We've got to be prepared and play with that high energy and play Wisconsin basketball. If we do that, I think we'll be all right.”