Badgers rally behind spark from sophomore Wilson to beat Michigan as big men fail to fill Leuer's shoes
MADISON, Wis. - This gave new meaning to the notion of winning ugly.
The Badgers endured an ice-cold night offensively, shooting just 34 percent from the floor. They made four three-pointers - despite putting the ball up 24 times from beyond the arc.
Even at home, even while playing great defense, this was no way to beat a Michigan team in the upper half of the Big Ten, no way to defeat a team that had just upset UConn.
Then, something funny happened on the way to a 16th consecutive victory at the Kohl Center. After alternating between bricks and airballs most of the night, the Badgers caught fire. And sophomore guard/forward Rob Wilson - who? - provided the spark.
Wilson scored 13 points off the bench on 4-of-6 shooting, which was more than enough to be the difference in a 54-48 victory. More importantly, though, was the timing of Wilson's outburst.
With the Badgers trailing 39-30 and under nine minutes to play, Wilson scored 11 of the Badgers' next 19 points to take a 49-43 lead in the final minute. He made a three-pointer that head coach Bo Ryan said barely moved the net, drove for a layup and tipped in another, and took advantage of two trips to the free-throw line by converting all four attempts.
Wilson finished the night with three rebounds, an assist and a steal. He didn't commit a foul.
Needless to say, Michigan head coach John Beilein didn't see this coming.
"He didn't play a lot last year," Beilein said. "We were going to play him straight up. He's made four threes. That's one every four games. We knew we had to get to him if he was open, but he found one on his own one time."
Performances like Wilson's against Michigan are the teeth behind Ryan's team philosophy. While senior guard Trevon Hughes and injured forward Jon Leuer are the unquestioned stars of this year's squad, Wisconsin does seem to get a key contribution from someone different in every game. We have seen Jordan Taylor, Ryan Evans and Mike Bruesewitz host their own coming-out parties in various contests this season. Perhaps this was just Wilson's time. Hughes certainly thinks so.
"It was about time for him to come out and play with us today," Hughes said. "We see glimpses of him in practice. We know he's a great player and sometimes when he comes over to the main squad he doesn't bring it. We needed it and he brought it."
Wilson, too, seemed to think his breakout performance was long overdue.
"I just hadn't been bringing it like I know I should have," Wilson said. "Today was the day I broke out of my shell. The main thing I was focusing on was playing defense."
Keeping themselves alive
Stout defense was about the only reason Wilson's hot shooting even mattered. Wisconsin trailed Michigan for all but the final 4:04 of the game, but held Michigan to 36 percent shooting to prevent the deficit from getting out of hand. Give the team credit for refusing to allow their frustrating offensive output to affect them on the other end of the floor.
The Badgers forced Wolverines forward DeShawn Sims to foul out, despite scoring 23 points. Tim Jarmusz will again draw the ire of fans for attempting two shots and failing to score a point in 33 minutes on the floor, but his defense on star guard Manny Harris, particularly in the second half, was impressive. Harris scored just eight points in the final 20 minutes, on 3-of-10 shooting. Jarmusz also avoided foul trouble, picking up just one before the final minute and was clearly making Harris work for every point he recorded.
"[Jarmusz] does that," Ryan said. "He understands what it takes to be successful defensively. We all know how good Manny is and what he can do with the ball."
Shoes remain unfilled
Still, the Badgers will need some offense, any offense, to come from Jarmusz if the team expects to weather the storm that is Leuer's wrist injury. The 51-point output at Ohio State indicated how much Wisconsin misses Leuer, but it was a road game against a quality opponent. Tonight's awful shooting performance at home against a Michigan team with the second-worst field-goal percentage defense in the Big Ten should raise some red flags about this team's ability to sustain success without the junior forward.
Perhaps more disturbing is that Wisconsin doesn't lack for size on its roster - it's just in need of its big men to become quality options. Keaton Nankivil is now the team's biggest starter at 6-8. There is no way he should be taking seven three-point attempts - the most any Badger took against the Wolverines. Nankivil made one of those tries. He has become even more reluctant to post up in Leuer's absence, and his underachievement has been exposed over the last three games. Mike Bruesewitz, Evans and Jarmusz combined for six points against Michigan. It all adds up to put a ton of pressure on the three guards - Hughes, Taylor and Jason Bohannon - to carry the offensive load.
Ryan wasn't ready to admit to a problem, despite his team taking 24 of its 53 shots from three-point land.
"Offensively, we gave Keaton [Nankivil] his chances, and he's going to bury somebody sometime if they keep that five-man back there in the paint," Ryan said. "We got the ball into the post several times tonight that ended up in penetration, and those ended up creating opportunities for us."
Even so, with Nankivil ineffective and Jarmusz averaging 3.2 points per game as a starter, why not give the 6-10 Jared Berggren another shot? He's not an ideal choice, given how raw he is, but what other options does Ryan have? The tremendously disappointing Ian Markolf and J.P. Gavinski have spent most of their careers giving fans in the first row heads to see over.
While the Badgers may have escaped tonight and probably will pull one out against Penn State in Madison on Sunday to go 3-1 without Leuer, they simply must find an inside presence if they hope to salvage a split in games against Purdue and Michigan State and legitimately challenge for a Big Ten title.
Unless Rob Wilson can repeat history and bail them out again.