MADISON, Wis. -- With an elevated style of play from top to bottom in the Big Ten this season, coaches and players alike from the conference's top tier of teams are hesitant to call any contest a "trap" game.
As Wisconsin (18-8, 9-4 Big Ten) travels to Evanston, Ill., for a date with the conference's 10th place team in Northwestern (13-13, 4-9), the Badgers have long ago thrown out any notions of the game lacking importance.
Freshman forward Sam Dekker hopes his team can overcome the trend that has perplexed the Badgers all season. The Badgers are just 1-4 in games following a win over an opponent ranked in the Top 25 this season, with all four losses coming on the road and two of those losses coming to unranked opponents.
"We've had a trend this year we're trying to bring to a halt," Dekker said. "After a big win, a lot of times we've taken one on the chin. We've got to have a focused mentality coming in there and come out with a ‘W.'"
The most recent punch in the mouth Wisconsin has taken on the road after a big win came last Thursday against Minnesota. Fresh off an emotional Saturday morning upset for the ages over No. 3 Michigan, the Badgers scored four points in the last 10 minutes of the game to allow the Gophers to creep back and take the game in overtime.
Now, the Badgers must play on the road in one of the most unique environments in the Big Ten at Northwestern's Welsh-Ryan Arena, a venue that seats just 8,117 fans.
But, Wisconsin has had success recently on the road against Northwestern, winning four of their last five meetings with the Wildcats in Evanston.
The Wildcats are also one of the weakest teams in the conference in regard to roster depth.
"There are five guys now out for the year (on Northwestern), three of them probable starters," assistant coach Greg Gard said. "They've tried to patch some things together and it's gotten some younger guys more time earlier than they would have normally gotten."
One of the starters Northwestern lost this season was senior forward and 2012 third team all-Big Ten selection Drew Crawford. But the injury bug didn't stop its bite there, claiming freshman guard Sanjay Lumpkin and freshman center Chier Ajou. The team is also missing junior JerShon Cobb, who was suspended for the season due to violations of team policy.
As if that wasn't enough, the Wildcats recently lost their leading rebounder, senior forward Jared Swopshire, for the season to a right knee injury on Feb. 9 against Iowa that required arthroscopic surgery.
Players have nevertheless stepped up for Northwestern in an injury-plagued year. Down to eight healthy scholarship players, former walk-on senior Reggie Hearn leads his team with 14.0 points per game, an average that ranks him ninth in the conference.
"They were at points earlier in the year playing really well (before the injuries) and have shown flashes," Gard said. "They beat Minnesota, they win at Illinois, they really thumped Purdue a couple weeks ago."
Northwestern's offense will also provide a unique challenge to a stout Wisconsin defense. Under head coach Bill Carmody, the Wildcats run the signature Princeton offense. A slow, deliberate half-court attack, it shares many similarities to the Badgers' swing offense. The Princeton offense demands sharp passing, attentive cuts and an overall feel for the game that allows players to anticipate their teammates' movements.
The cuts also vary in speed, as players in motion will deliberately lull their defender to sleep, only to make an extremely quick cut or backdoor move to the basket for an easy layup.
"They're unlike many other Big Ten teams in terms of their offense," senior guard Dan Fahey said. "It's a big challenge, so we're going to have to get ready for the test ahead and the Princeton offense and their changing defenses, so they'll keep us on our toes."
NU can also stretch the defense with their ability to make the three, as the team averages 7.7 made three-point baskets per game on the season. The discipline of the Princeton mentality also can be seen in Northwestern's intelligent passing, as the group ranks 11th in the nation with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.40.
"They can put so much pressure on you on the perimeter," Gard said. "If you make mistakes, they're going to get threes off and if you get overzealous or overanxious, they end up with back-cuts for layups."
Wisconsin will have to remain disciplined on offense itself, as Northwestern will most likely throw a mix of man-to-man defense in with 2-3 and 1-3-1 zones.
With both teams focused on exerting a slowed down, half-court game, the winner could be decided on which team not only makes shots, but limits turnovers as well, as tonight's game will feature limited offensive possessions for both teams.
"We definitely can't look past anyone. I don't think we ever really do, especially in the Big Ten," Fahey said. "Northwestern is a good team. They've beaten a lot of good teams like Illinois and other teams. We've just got to get ready and move on. Ohio State was a nice win, but we have to move on."