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Taking Center Stage

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Leuer steals show on Senior Night as Badgers clamp down defensively on Big Ten's ugliest

MADISON, Wis. - This was supposed to be the night of the guards, an occasion to celebrate one of the most productive duos in Badger history.  The end result - a Wisconsin victory over a truly awful Iowa squad - was a foregone conclusion.  All that remained to be seen was how well the tandem of Jason Bohannon and Trevon Hughes would acquit themselves on a stage that was set for them.

Oh, they did quite well.  The pair combined for 26 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists.

Bo Ryan was certainly pleased and in a reflective mood.

"Just think about two guys going over 1,000 points in the same year, playing on NCAA tournament teams, conference championship teams, conference tournament champion teams," Ryan said.  "That's pretty exciting.  There are a lot of people who would like to be Jason Bohannon and Trevon Hughes."

But it was a junior forward who just couldn't wait until next year to steal the senior spotlight. 

Jon Leuer raised eyebrows all night with his most complete performance since his return from a wrist injury.  He poured in 18 points, snagged five rebounds, made four assists and recorded three emphatic blocks in 33 minutes on the court.

Leuer's barrage of athletic playmaking and pure shooting came in an efficient 8-of-9 performance from the field.  He started early, scoring 12 of his points in the first half, and led the Badgers to their second straight blowout over a woefully overmatched opponent.

A stretch of pure dominance over about a two-and-a-half-minute span in the first half saw Leuer outscore the other nine players on the floor 10-0.  These were no ordinary ten points, either. 

Leuer took a lob from Bohannon and slammed it home for his first points in the spree.  On the next possession, he was on the receiving end of a sweet pass from Jordan Taylor and dunked again. 

After blocking a shot on the defensive end after an Iowa timeout, Leuer hustled down the court to take another pass from Taylor, this time behind the three-point line, and swish a beautiful trey.  Amazingly, Leuer (and Taylor) still weren't finished.  Following a missed jumper by Matt Gatens of the Hawkeyes, Leuer took another pass from Taylor in three-point land and notched his second straight triple. 

Cue another burnt Iowa timeout in the midst of an 18-0 Wisconsin run.

More important than Leuer's monstrous statistical line is the way his play - and his reintegration into the Badger offense - has impacted the rest of the team.  Wisconsin took 12 three-point attempts in the game.  In Leuer's absence, the team would routinely heave 30-plus in a desperate attempt to score points with a nagging void inside.

Most of the threes taken against the Hawkeyes were open looks, which led to a 50 percent conversion rate in that department.  Leuer has eased the pressure on Bohannon, Hughes and Taylor considerably, and the trio of guards look much more comfortable and relaxed with the big man on the court and playing well.  A 33-20 rebounding advantage over the Hawkeyes, as well as a 30-16 edge in points in the paint, also have something to do with Leuer's return to form.

His head coach seems to think he's making progress.

"I think each game he's looked a little more comfortable in recognizing game speeds and reactions," Ryan said.  "We knew he would struggle a little bit early, getting back on the court, but the game goes on.  You just have to go with his abilities to the point where if he's comfortable, and in a rhythm, he can be a pretty good player."

As Ryan mentioned, there was a distinct period of readjustment to Leuer's presence when he came back from injury, and we really shouldn't have expected anything different.  The guy was out over a month and the Badgers, to their credit, found other ways to win six of the nine games they played without him.

But with just a game left in the regular season against a befuddling but desperate Illinois team, it seems the team has become acclimated to playing with Leuer again at just the right time.  His return to form will make Wisconsin a tough out in either tournament.

Getting stingy

Another reason the Badgers will be difficult to knock off is their defense appears to have regained its swagger.  After holding Indiana to 46 points last week, Wisconsin limited Iowa to 40, the lowest output of any opponent all season.  The Hawkeyes scored a paltry 16 in the first half.

Only forward Aaron Fuller scored in double digits for Iowa, and five players, three of whom saw at least 12 minutes of action, failed to score.  The Hawkeyes shot 37 percent from the floor and made just three treys.  The Badgers forced 12 turnovers, which led to 15 points, and blocked six shots. 

Iowa's three starting guards were held in check by Wisconsin's veteran counterparts, who limited the trio to just 15 combined points.

Hawkeyes head coach Todd Lickliter was well aware of the way the Badgers dominated.

"I think we just shot quick shots," Lickliter said.  "Until late in the game Aaron (Fuller) wasn't able to drive with (Keaton) Nankivil and (Jon) Leuer.  He could sometimes get a drive but couldn't get over them.  That put a damper on that.  I thought the anxiousness really had an effect.  If they score quick, you don't want to hurry up and try to counter it quickly.  Just remain patient.  We weren't able to do that."

After struggling in Leuer's first couple games back, the team appears to have become even stronger defensively than it was before he went down. 

It should also be noted that in two games with a new starting lineup - Leuer and Taylor are in, Jarmusz is out - Wisconsin has posted two of its best defensive efforts of the season.

That is somewhat of an indictment of Jarmusz, whose offensive woes (2.8 points per game) were already plainly obvious.  In the junior forward's last game as a starter against Northwestern, he got torched by John Shurna.  While he can shut down one-dimensional players like Michigan's Manny Harris, the last two games have proven that the Badgers are not just better offensively with Leuer on the floor.

When asked about the success the new lineup was having sans Jarmusz, Ryan wouldn't take the bait, nor would he guarantee that the change will be permanent.

"We will see what happens in practice," Ryan said.  "The guys coming in off the bench did a great job of adding energy, defense and some scoring.  But when you get into this time of year, you have to have numbers.  Only five can start.  We don't make a big deal out of it."

The bottom is clear

Unfortunately, another thing proven by the Badgers' last two games is just how awful the bottom of the Big Ten is this year.  A conference many thought would be the best in the nation before the season started has been hampered by key injuries to the stars of its top teams.  But a marked lack of depth has also become readily apparent, and it's tough to envision any of the conference's bottom feeders beating another team from a BCS league.

Indiana, Iowa and Penn State are a combined 10-40 in conference play and 30-57 overall.  The Hawkeyes have suffered two four-game losing streaks this season, and they have failed to break 50 points five times.  IU boss Tom Crean got tossed from the Hoosiers' horrid loss to Wisconsin last week, one of the worst in program history. 

Lickliter had no answer for his team's putridity.

"We haven't been at a level to come into a place like this and concentrate on the task at hand and be successful," Lickliter said.  "It's a possession game and there's no way we could play that way.  We panicked.  When you panic against Wisconsin you're in trouble.  Tonight we didn't play the way we needed to play against a team of that caliber."

Obviously every conference will have teams at the bottom, but the utter lack of competitiveness displayed by the tail end of the Big Ten this year is downright disturbing.  Even the teams with better records have shown no consistency.  Michigan and Northwestern, both expected to be solid squads, have stumbled their way to 7-10 league records.  The Wolverines aren't even at .500 overall. 

Minnesota, which had endured nightmarish suspensions and injuries to key players, finally looked like it was on the right track - until a 28-point blowout this week ended their tournament hopes.  Even Illinois, which has impressive wins over Wisconsin and Michigan State, has a pedestrian overall record and is in danger of being on the wrong side of the bubble. 

The conference is doing its top teams no favors when it comes to national respect.  Unfortunately, the performance we saw from Iowa against Wisconsin might do more to solidify their status as a hoops punching bag than prove that the Badgers are legitimate.

Still, here's betting Bohannon and Hughes wouldn't have cared if their opponent were the Harlem Globetrotters on their special night.  The pair, as they have so often in their Badger careers, walked off the Kohl Center floor as winners for the final time. 

Their head coach certainly didn't mind playing a bad team, even though Bohannon, an Iowa native who rejected the Hawkeyes to be a Badger, faced his hometown school on Senior Night.

"We never get into who we are playing against or anything else," Ryan said.  "We are certainly happy (Bohannon) matriculated here and has had a great experience here.  He is stronger, he's better defensively, he's able to get separation for his shot a little bit better.  He is stronger off the bounce, finishing around the basket.  He became a pretty good leader.  And I hope he has a lot more in him."

Something tells me Bo's wish might become a reality.

-Jake Harris