Big performances from three stars, second-half surge lead Badgers past Wolverines
MADISON, Wis. - Now that Wisconsin running backs John Clay, Montee Ball and James White have played their last football game of the year, it's time for Badger fans to turn their attention to a different three-headed monster.
Jordan Taylor, Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil may not be the most effective between the tackles, but their abilities on the basketball court helped lead Wisconsin (12-3, 2-1 Big Ten) to its 12th consecutive win at home, 66-50 over Michigan (11-4, 1-2) Wednesday night.
The three starters combined to score 50 points, which is what the entire Wolverines roster managed against the Badgers' stingy defense. Taylor, Leuer and Nankivil each scored in double figures, and the trio combined to make seven of Wisconsin's 12 assists and pull down 20 of the team's 29 rebounds.
Despite accounting for the vast majority of Wisconsin's production, head coach Bo Ryan refused to use the term "supporting cast" to refer to the rest of his squad.
"We have a team and all the individuals on that team are all the same," Ryan said. "They're all trying to contribute, so I don't put them in that classification. There are so many things over the course of a game that you have to be cognisant of that involve all five players at the same time. I always think they're contributing but it may not be in ways that other people recognize."
Taylor has grown especially comfortable in his role as the Badgers' floor leader in the early part of Big Ten play. He again scored 20 points, 17 of which came after halftime, helping Wisconsin turn a small deficit into a comfortable lead.
With the Badgers trailing 30-26 early in the second half, Taylor scored nine points, all on 3-pointers, as Wisconsin used a 16-3 run to take a double-digit lead.
When the Wolverines had to foul down the stretch, Taylor calmly drained free throws, converting on 7 of 8 opportunities at the line.
Did Ryan say something to his point guard at halftime to try to energize him?
I know some guys that would jump on that and say, 'yeah, I told him, and I told him, and I told him,'" Ryan said. "No. We talked about certain things. Jordan knows. Jordan's one of the smartest guys around."
It is scary to think of where the Badgers would have been at halftime without the services of Leuer. The senior forward scored 11 of his 17 points in the opening period, and they were 11 of the team's first 12 points of the game. No other Badger hit a field goal until the recently demoted Mike Bruesewitz made a jumper with 7:35 left in the half.
The team looked sluggish as the game began and twice faced six-point deficits in the first 20 minutes. Without Leuer, the Badgers would have fallen much further behind. Instead, Michigan led by just two at the break.
Keaton Nankivil has emerged as a legitimate third option for the Badgers in recent games, and he continued his efficient shooting against the Wolverines, scoring 13 points and sinking 3-of-5 3s.
Nankivil is averaging 8.4 points per game this season, but that mark increases to 11.7 in Big Ten games. His teammates have taken notice.
"It helps us out a lot," Leuer said. "Anytime we can get that type of production that Keaton's been giving us the last few weeks, it's huge. It frees a lot of stuff up for us and we're able to get into a rhythm offensively."
Nankivil will need to continue to knock down open looks, display aggressiveness offensively and score in double figures to complement Taylor and Leuer.
The play of the "Big Three" is even more important as Ryan continues to tinker with the fourth and fifth spots in his starting lineup. Freshman Josh Gasser and sophomore Mike Bruesewitz sat in favor of junior Rob Wilson and senior Tim Jarmusz. Ryan didn't say whether the change would be permanent, but it's clear he is looking for more offense from those positions.
The early returns on the switch were discouraging. Jarmusz made two free throws in 35 minutes, while Wilson picked up two quick fouls and got the hook early, finishing with no points in just 11 minutes.
With the back end of the Badgers' rotation in flux, the steady play of Taylor, Leuer and Nankivil is necessary to keep this team afloat. Upcoming games at Michigan State and against pesky Illinois should give us a better idea of how far this team can go in a tough conference.