When Bo Ryan handed over the reins to Greg Gard, there was no way he envisioned this version of Wisconsin reaching these heights this season. After all, this Wisconsin team had a horrific non-conference with losses to Western Illinois, Georgetown, Marquette and Milwaukee. Conference play didn't start any better, as the Badgers dropped four of their first five including at Northwestern.
But the flip switched. A massive home win against Michigan State catapulted this seven game winning streak, with a home win against Indiana and a monster road victory at Maryland moving them to 16-9 overall and 8-4 in the Big Ten. Wisconsin is still firmly on the bubble given their bad early losses, but it's hard to ignore how well this team is finally playing.
Wednesday night's game against Nebraska was simply a superior Badger team churning out winning plays over the Huskers. Four of five Badgers finished in double figures, led by the great frontcourt play of Nigel Hayes' 20 points and Vitto Brown's 18. Bronson Koenig only attempted 7 shots and appears to be settling into his role as not as much of a gunner as he was under Bo Ryan, but this has to be attributed to the solid play of everyone around him.
While the victory over Nebraska was to be expected, nobody saw Saturday night coming. Wisconsin traveled to College Park to play Maryland, a team still undefeated at home in their two seasons of Big Ten play. Maryland has five legitimate NBA-caliber players, and when they're gelling, it could be argued they're one of the best two or three teams in the country.
Wisconsin didn't care for hyperbole, punching the Terrapins. Maryland jumped out to a 14-7 lead early before Wisconsin finished the half on a 29-7 run to lead 36-21 at the break. It was the best half of basketball Wisconsin has played all season, with shooters making just about everything and the defense playing at another level.
Six first half 3-pointers along with inside play from Ethan Happ and Charlie Thomas propelled the Badgers. Perhaps the most telling part of that first half was when Diamond Stone threw Vitto Brown's head to the ground on a dead ball play. The Badgers were already up 16, and Stone's frustration was dirty, egregious and should have led to ejection. Thomas and Stone each received a technical instead, but Thomas defending his man is extremely commendable and should not have been punished.
The Badgers got a little lackadaisical in the second half, allowing Maryland to cut the deficit to six with just over ten minutes left, but defense and clutch shooting brought the Badgers to the finish line, 70-57. Wisconsin finished with 12 3-pointers, but most importantly held Maryland to 40% overall and the first time the Terrapins failed to reach over 60 points all season.
Vitto Brown carried the torch offensively again, finishing 8-14 for 21 points and added seven rebounds. Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig struggled mightily again, combining 8-25 for 30 points, and Ethan Happ continued his mini-slump only scoring four points. Gard played all four bench rotation players ten minutes each or more, but only Thomas and Khalil Iverson had one basket each.
Overall, Wisconsin is playing the best basketball of anyone in America right now. Their seven game win streak is amazing considering who they've beaten and how they've done it, but the road doesn't get any easier. Thursday night the Badgers travel to East Lansing to play Michigan State, a team ranked eighth in the AP Poll but sit behind the Badgers in the Big Ten standings at 8-5.
Denzel Valentine is their workhorse and is deservedly in the running for National Player of the Year, but role players like Bryn Forbes, Matt Costello, Gavin Schilling, Eron Harris and Marvin Clark Jr. make this an extremely solid team. Wisconsin is probably going to have to hit 10+ 3s again, and after winning at Maryland in the fashion they did, they're certainly capable of pulling the upset.
Sunday night gets a little easier as slumping Illinois travels to the Kohl Center, a game that will do no favors for the resume but a game that Wisconsin absolutely has to win to keep their NCAA Tournament resume in check. If they can somehow get both wins, they inch increasingly closer to somehow pulling off the improbable after starting 9-9. For now, on Wisconsin.