The Badgers will look to reestablish their dominance on the floor of the Kohl Center as they take on the 17th ranked Indiana Hoosiers. Indiana sits a game behind Wisconsin in the Big Ten standings and two games behind the three-way tie atop the conference. These teams have already seen their share of adversity in the early conference season, and while their records are only a game apart, the recent past of each colors them very different.
Everybody had a pretty good idea of what Indiana was when this season began. Bringing good coaching and even better recruiting, there is little doubt Tom Crean has the program headed in the right direction. But after winning only 3 conference games last season, this team was still a long way off from regaining lost Big Ten glory. Or so we thought. After starting the year with eight straight wins against moderate competition, Indiana shocked the college basketball world with a buzzer-beating victory over top-ranked Kentucky. The Hoosiers finished non-conference play with a perfect 12-0 record before suffering their first loss at Michigan State to open Big Ten play. But another stunning upset kept them climbing up the rankings, as they knocked off #2 Ohio State, then followed it up by taking down #13 Michigan.
Since then, however, Indiana is 2-3 with a pair of wins over conference lightweight Penn State flanking a three-game losing streak. Even coming off a 19-point win, the Hoosiers have lost some of their “giant killer swag” and are looking far more like the team most expected. They’ve beaten just one conference opponent on the road (Penn State).
Even with their record taking a southward turn, Indiana has gotten consistently stellar play from freshman Cody Zeller, the younger brother of North Carolina star Tyler Zeller. Zeller is shooting over 65% on the year, averaging 15.1 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks per game.
Wisconsin, meanwhile, has rebounded from their 1-3 conference start to win four straight, including road victories over Purdue and Illinois. The Kohl Center, historically a veritable fortress of Badger dominance, hasn’t been as kind to Wisconsin this year, as the Badgers have already lost three games on their own court. But that fact was really just obscuring the reality at the time: Wisconsin simply wasn’t playing well in the early conference season. During their winning streak, though, the Badgers have shot the ball well and defended like they’re used to, holding every opponent below their average offensive efficiency. In the one game where Wisconsin’s shots weren’t falling–against Nebraska on January 15th–they made up for it by outscoring the Cornhuskers 18-2 at the foul line.
The Badgers still aren’t getting standout production from any one player, as Jordan Taylor’s shot remains inconsistent and other players endure varying hot and cold streaks. Taylor remains under 40% shooting on the season, but he’s averaged almost 10 foul shots per game over his last four. He’s also been rebounding well beyond his position, averaging almost 6 over that same stretch.
The Badgers will need Taylor to find his form soon if they want to supplant teams like Ohio State and Michigan State at the top of the standings. They’ll also need strong defensive performances from players like Jared Berggren and Ryan Evans who will be tasked with containing Zeller and the rest of Indiana’s talented frontcourt. Tonight, in the comfort of their own home (court) against a team seeking to prove it has the staying power to compete for a conference title, would be as good a time as any to put it all together.