After a monster home victory against Michigan State nine days ago, Wisconsin only had one game on the docket this week. It came at Penn State, a tricky opponent but an extremely winnable game that Badgers needed to grab to have any chance at making postseason play.
The first half started ugly, with Wisconsin jumping out to a 27-18 halftime lead. The second half provided much more excitement, with Penn State outscoring the Badgers 42-39 but Wisconsin claiming the victory 66-60. While the Badgers did get outscored in the second half and let Penn State hang around, there are mostly positives to take away from their victory in State College.
First, Ethan Happ was absolutely dominant inside for the Badgers. He finished with 20 points and 11 rebounds, and 10-15 from the free throw line. Happ was able to constantly force the Penn State big men into foul trouble, as starting center Jordan Dickerson had four fouls in nine minutes of action. Happ is slowly but surely becoming a top player and scorer, and is providing a great one-two punch in the frontcourt with Nigel Hayes.
Speaking of Hayes, the junior didn't have a terrible day himself. 15 points, five assists and three rebounds are positive, but the 5-14 shooting is something Hayes has been trying to work on all season. He continued to take good shots throughout the game, and hopefully they'll continue to drop as the season goes on.
In the backcourt, Wisconsin still seems like they're lacking production. Veteran Bronson Koenig still seems to be in a bit of a slump, finishing with eight points and two rebounds, and Zak Showalter had four points, four rebounds and two assists. Neither player really looked to attack, and Koenig especially appears to have lost his groove that he really found at the end of last season.
The bench under Greg Gard, however, appears to be far more of a factor than it was under Bo Ryan. While Ryan leaned heavily on Khalil Iverson and Charlie Thomas as the back end of his seven-man rotation, Gard has gone in another direction. Thomas and Iverson only saw the floor for seven combined minutes, with Gard opting to use Alex Illikainen and Jordan Hill for many more minutes.
Illikainen had a very solid game, finishing with nine points and seven rebounds in 26 minutes. Hill was far less productive in his 14 minutes, only finishing with two rebounds, but he's given Wisconsin energy and defense off the bench when Koenig or Showalter need to sit for extended minutes.
While the Penn State win isn't going to be a major boost to the resume, the road win at least gives Wisconsin momentum heading into this week, a week that could prove very important for their resume whether for the NIT or the extremely long shot of the NCAA Tournament.
Tuesday's home game against Indiana is the bullseye game of this stretch, as the Hoosiers are one of two Big Ten teams that still remain undefeated. They're led by point guard Yogi Ferrell, one of the best players in the conference, and spread the floor with a barrage of shooters.
If the ball is not in the hands of Yogi or shooters, there's a good chance you'll see a Troy Williams high-flying dunk or a Thomas Bryant smooth post move. The point is, Indiana has become so dangerous because of their weapons all over the floor. Tom Crean might even be able to keep the Hoosier faithful happy this year, but Tuesday's test at the Kohl Center should be a great gauge on how good Indiana really is.
While Tuesday's test is somewhat difficult, Sunday at Illinois is the type of game Wisconsin absolutely needs to win. Illinois was expected to compete in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten, but injuries have crushed them to the point where they're scrounging to even find a solid rotation.
Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn have taken over for the Illini this season, but there's not a whole lot of help behind them. Mike Thorne, the transfer from Charlotte, only lasted eight games before tearing his ACL, and Michael Finke and Maverick Morgan have done a mediocre job filling in where Thorne left off.
There's a lot coming back for this Illinois team next season, but this isn't the season where postseason play is realistically on the table. For a Wisconsin team with a lot of talent in desperate need of any win, this is one they need to have. The NCAA Tournament is still miles away, but talk of the NIT can start to become more realistic if they're able to win both games this week.