In Big Ten play you are going to run into basketball teams that can expose your weaknesses. Such was the case Tuesday night in the conference opener. The mark of a good team is being able to overcome those weaknesses. Wisconsin's hard-earned 68-60 win over No. 14 Minnesota was the epitome of a team victory. The Badger supporting cast contributed timely baskets and a solid defensive effort to overshadow its rebounding woes and snap the team's losing streak against the Golden Gophers.
As in last season's contest, Minnesota used it's size and aggressiveness to rule the glass, grabbing 18 more rebounds (42-24) than Wisconsin. The Gophers crashed the offensive boards successfully and highlighted what can only be described as suspect hands by the Badger big men. Too often a Wisconsin player would have good position, only to have the ball simply bounce off his hands or be jarred loose.
But Wisconsin countered with their strengths, namely ball handling and free throw shooting. The Badgers turned the ball over only two times while connecting on a 17-of-18 free throws attempts, which proved to be the difference. And the list of those deserving credit is lengthy.
- Sophomore Jared Berggren was a revelation when called upon to spell Keaton Nankivil. Serendipitously, Nankivil's foul trouble opened the door for UW's only reliable inside scoring threat of the night. Berggren was in ATTACK! mode, mixing both quick moves and combination post moves to score from the block. The Minnesota native not only shot 4-of-6 for eight first-half points, but also posted four rebounds and three blocks in 21 minutes.
- Together with Berggren, Jordan Taylor stemmed the maroon-and-gold tide in a difficult first half. While Jon Leuer seemed content to play passively outside the paint, Taylor fought by probing the defense even if he did throw up a few ill-advised and inaccurate threes. The junior point man scored nine straight points and 12 of UW's 14 in a four-minute run that turned a five-point deficit into a four-point advantage, at 28-24. Taylor finished with a game-high 22 points.
- This was easily the most exciting game of the year to date, with the Kohl Center crowd doing an admirable job of raising the decibels when appropriate. Conversely, the Tim Jarmusz "haters" (myself included) are pretty silent. Fans have been treated to a more confident TJ of late. By hitting all three of his 3-pointers tonight, Jarmusz is on a 7-for-8 tear behind the arc in the last two games. He even gunned a catch-n-shoot trey with no hesitation -- over a Gopher defender's outstretched arm no less! Not only that, but his fundamental defense seemed to neutralize Rodney Williams, after he appeared to be on his way to a huge game.
- I have to mention the good as well as the bad. Mike Bruesewitz simply could not keep up with Williams while suffering through one of his poorer games. It's fairly amazing that Bruiser logged 16 minutes, but that's simply an indictment of how the wing position in general was exposed by Minnesota. Ryan Evans looked uncomfortable in all facets.
- Despite foul trouble, Nankivil scored a quietly effective 11 points in 16 minutes, include some momentous jumpers. His biggest accomplishment may have been sending Trevor Mbakwe to the bench with two early fouls, which allowed Wisconsin to grab a halftime lead. The man-child Mbakwe still posted an 11-11 double-double.
The game was really a showcase where the Wisconsin players showed that collectively they translate into a team with pretty good potential. Josh Gasser played 31 error-free minutes like a vet, but probably is the last thing people will remember about this game. Leuer scoring his 1,000th point was almost an afterthought in this rivalry edition, although his game-clinching offensive rebound with 29 seconds left may have been the second most important play of the game (Taylor's "and-1" on Ralph Sampson III being the most important). I would have preferred Leuer take a more proactive approach at times last night, but he and his mates did exhibit active, effective post defense that forced Minnesota to settle for some low-percentage shots.
(For the record, Taylor did a fair job staying in front of both Al Nolen and Devoe Joseph, but I cannot figure out why Tubby Smith does not go with Joseph at the point full time. Nolen has never impressed me much; Joseph notched 14 points -- shooting 46% -- and seven assists while splitting time.)
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