2014 has once again proven the dominance of Big Ten basketball. Five Big Ten schools currently sit inside the AP’s top 25; more than any other conference. RPI has ranked the Big Ten as the second strongest conference behind the Big Twelve. The NCAA selection commitee may end up sending seven teams from the conference into the tournament.
Since January, each team has been battling to survive conference play, traveling through the midwest as they visit some of the nation’s loudest crowds. For the Wisconsin Badgers, February’s six-game stretch from Ohio State to Iowa has been their toughest.
Of the six games played, four have been against top-25 teams. Other than the February first loss to Ohio State, the Badgers have looked incredible. They now hold a four-game winning streak and have bumped themselves to fourth place in Big Ten standings.
Saturday brings a perfect opportunity to leap frog the Iowa Hawkeyes. It won’t be a cake walk by any means; in fact, Saturday may be the toughest game of the Badger’s regular season.
On January fifth, the Hawkeyes had total control in Madison until head coach Fran McCaffery was charged with two technicals swinging the game from a two point Iowa lead, into a three point Wisconsin advantage. If it weren’t for McCaffery’s blunder, the Hawkeyes may have left the Kohl Center with a victory.
Iowa is now ranked fifteenth in the nation, just one ahead of Wisconsin. They too have had themselves a successful month of February. With both teams coming into the weekend with a head of steam, Saturday should not disappoint. I have three areas of focus for the Badgers which will determine the outcome of the game.
In April 2010, Illinois native Ben Brust was released from his letter of intent to Iowa. Just one month later, the high school senior decided to stay on the east side of the Mississippi and join the Wisconsin Badgers. Now in his final chapter at Wisconsin, Brust will have one last opportunity to show the people of Iowa what they almost had.
Brust is coming off sub-par performance against Michigan, however three days before he was marvelous. Against Minnesota, he shot four-for-four from beyond the arc. Ben is now 15 triples away from re-breaking his own record of 79 single-season three point field goals.
No doubt, Ben Brust will go down as one of UW’s top shooters, but on Saturday he will need to turn his attention to the defensive end. Iowa has a strong group of guards that are not afraid to shoot. Last Month, starters Roy Marble and Mike Gesell attempted 36 of Iowa’s 64 field goals. Since Marble is the team’s high scorer, Bo Ryan will likely send Josh Gasser to guard him. Brust will then be told to guard Gesell, Iowa’s leading assist man, who dished out seven in last month’s meeting. Brust’s veteran knowledge often finds himself in passing lanes. Disturbing Gesell’s timing could be huge for the Badger’s success.
During the Badgers practice on Wednesday, Brust fell hard on his back. He was forced to leave practice and has now been listed day-to-day. Ben has started in 61 consecutive games for the Badgers. If Brust does play, keep an eye on his ability to move around.
Containing Aaron White
White’s success against Wisconsin dates back to December, 2011. Against UW, he has never scored in single digits. His offensive range consistently hassles the Badger’s defense year in, and year out.
White is Iowa’s second leading scorer as well as rebounder this season. His 6-foot-nine height places him two inches above Sam Dekker, who will be likely be assigned to him. This becomes a dilemma for Wisconsin. If White decided to test Dekker’s post defense he may once again amass single digits.
Wisconsin may want to alternate who guards White. Perhaps have a physical defender such as Nigel Hayes work on him. If he ever roams outside three point line, Bo Ryan may need to send in Josh Gasser or Duje Dukan to apply pressure. Containing Aaron White must be the focus for Wisconsin defensively
Head coaches Bo Ryan and Fran McCaffery are not the best of friends. McCaffery’s hiring in 2010 led to Ben Brust’s decision to commit to Wisconsin, instantly sparking a rivalry. McCaffery would strike back in 2012 when Badger forward Jarrod Uthoff transferred to Iowa.
Both coaches have a split record of three wins and three losses when head-to-head. Statistically, this is poor for Bo Ryan who holds a .706 winning percentage in Big Ten play. In order for Ryan to boost that win percentage, he will have to start taking McCaffery and the Hawkeyes seriously.
Other than their Pennsylvania heritage, the coaches have few similarities. McCaffery is a high-energy, fiery coach who often finds himself in trouble with officials. His energy reflects on the court. The Hawkeyes are the Big Ten’s leading scorers averaging 83 points-per game; ten more than the Badgers. Iowa will play at a pace much faster than Wisconsin. Bo Ryan should attempt to slow this game down and create a tempo suitable for the Badgers.
Wisconsin-Iowa has suddenly turned into quite the rivalry. The off-court events have created a bit of tension whenever these teams meet. Now after a week of preparation each, the cross-state rivals will butt heads in a game with major implications. The loser will have no shot at the Big-Ten title. A victory could also vault either team into a top-ten ranking along with excellent seeding in the NCAA tournament.