Wisconsin now has just two games left in the regular season. It seems like we always say this, but this 2013-14 campaign really does feel like it flew by.
The Badgers' historic 16-0 start had the entire fan base energized beyond levels we've likely ever seen, and then came the midseason slump. Losing five out of six in conference play is something nobody saw coming, and unfortunately it cost Wisconsin a chance to claim the Big Ten title. But, how good has Bo Ryan's club been in bounce-back mode?
The Badgers have rattled off seven consecutive wins following that rough stretch, and if there has ever been a group with the right combination of moxie and resilience, I think it's this one.
With Wisconsin now back close to level of its original self, the question many outlets have posed of late is can this team get all the way to the top line in the NCAA tournament? It is unlikely, yes, but certainly not out of the realm of possibility. After all, the Badgers have the credentials -- a No. 5 ranking in the RPI playing the nation's second-toughest schedule, and a 7-1 record over teams currently in the AP Top 25.
A loss against Purdue Wednesday would thwart any chance of a one seed, though, so let's see if Wisconsin can avenge its Senior Night loss from a season ago against the Boilermakers. When Purdue walked into the Kohl Center and had its way with the Badgers last year, it was one of the more shocking games I've seen during my cardinal-and-white years.
So then, how does Wisconsin prevent a similar shocking, unsettling loss? Let's get to our three keys and we'll find out.
Get off to a fast start
Ryan steadies UW entering senior night
Wisconsin's final home game of the season isn't about sweeping Purdue or avenging last year's Senior Day loss. It's about staying the course and building on the lessons learned through a long season.
The Badgers actually started last season's Senior Night game against Purdue just fine, leading 36-31 at intermission. Then came an abysmal second half and a 13-point loss.
In Wednesday's contest, if Wisconsin starts quickly and can overcome the external distractions that come with honoring the seniors before tip-off, then I think the Badgers roll. The Boilermakers don't have a dead-eye shooter like D.J. Byrd this season to knock down threes to help them mount a possible comeback.
Also consider this: Wisconsin is 22-3 when leading at halftime this season, and Purdue isn't nearly as potent offensively as Indiana and even Ohio State for that matter.
Seniors, enjoy your day. We thank you for everything you've brought to the UW program. Once the ceremony is over, though, let's play ball and get things going from the outset.
Limit Terone Johnson
Purdue is 2-6 in Big Ten play when Johnson is held to 10 or fewer points, so I'll say it again: Here's looking at you, Josh Gasser.
The only way I see the Boilers upsetting Wisconsin inside the Kohl Center is if they get a stand-out individual performance, and the player most capable of such a performance is Johnson. He had a superb game in Purdue's upset of the Badgers last season, controlling pace much of the game en route to 16 points, seven rebounds and four assists.
Then again, Johnson didn't have a go against a top-flight defender like Gasser last year, so I don't think he'll have the same room to operate this go-round. Gasser is just too good defensively, and he's shut down much more talented offensive players already this season.
This may be a tangential point here, but where does Gasser deserve to be placed as far the Big Ten's all-conference teams are concerned? I've heard most say he deserves to garner second-team recognition, but there is a select group pining for him to knab a first-team spot. I'd probably go second-team, but this guy's resurgence this year has sure been fun to watch no matter where he ends up.
Get Ben Brust going from behind the arc
The last time I referenced making threes as one of my keys to a win, the Badgers came forth with a deplorable 5-of-24 shooting performance from behind the arc and shockingly, embarrassingly lost to Northwestern. I was forced to eat crow.
Let's hope I don't have to again this evening.
I use this final key as more of a forward-thinking point: a hot-shooting Brust will dramatically help Wisconsin come the NCAA tournament, and he's capable of winning a game for the Badgers if he gets hot enough.
After being mired in one of the worst shooting slumps of his career, Brust has connected on seven threes in his last three halves of basketball, so it appears he's back to his typical self from distance. However, the one thing you continue to do when you've got a shooter on your team is continue to feed him until he's back into his groove.
Brust was 1-of-18 from three in his previous 2 1/2 games before he heated up in the second half against Indiana, and while his four threes were helpful in beating Penn State on Sunday, I don't think Brust is back to what he's capable of. Another quality night shooting the rock will prove to me he is in fact out of his slump.
Tonight is Senior Night, Benny, so go out and enjoy your final game in Madison, and let the threes fly. And please, make them.
Prediction: Wisconsin rolls. The Badgers make it their eighth straight win with a good ol' fashioned whooping. Wisconsin 78, Purdue 62.