With Josh Gasser back in the lineup and a renewed emphasis on playing physical the Badgers aren't getting pushed around this year.
By ZACH HEILPRIN
MADISON - Buzz Williams was probably just trying to butter them up. But when the Marquette basketball coach took to the podium on Thursday to talk about his team’s game on Saturday with the University of Wisconsin he threw a lot of praise towards the guys in Madison.
“I think they’re the best team they’ve been since I’ve been here,” said Williams, now in his sixth year as the head man with the Golden Eagles. “I think (the players) understand their role. I think they understand their skill set. They’re never going to beat themselves. Extremely impressed with (Bo Ryan’s) team this year. Extremely impressed.”
And what’s not to be impressed with. Ryan’s team is ranked No. 8 in the country and 9-0 for the first time since 1993. The start is the second-best in school history and they’ve already found revenge on two of their non-conference losses from last year – beating Florida 59-53 and putting a stranglehold on Virginia, winning 48-38 on Wednesday. Now come the Golden Eagles – who are playing their fifth straight game away from the BMO Harris Bradley Center. They’re coming off a 67-59 loss to San Diego State in the title game of the DIRECTV Wooden Legacy. All of that would seem to land in Wisconsin’s favor to snap a two-game losing streak to their I-94 rival. But the Badgers know better, having had their 23-game home winning streak snapped in 2011 while they were ranked No. 9 in the nation.
“I do,” junior guard Josh Gasser answered when asked if he remembered the 61-54 loss. “They were definitely more aggressive. They brought more energy from the start. And that’s just something you can’t let happen, especially at your home court. You know they’re going to come in amped up, ready to go, so if we don’t match that a result like that can happen.”
It actually did happen again – this time in a 60-50 Badgers loss in Milwaukee last year.
“They took it to us physically (and) mentally,” said Sam Dekker, who got the start in place of an injured Mike Bruesewitz. “Their environment got to us and we were very soft. And we don’t want to feel that again this year.
“We’ve got to play strong. Hopefully (get) our home crowd behind us, get a little momentum. Just play Wisconsin basketball and that’s being the tougher team and that’s something we pride ourselves on.”
Especially this year. The words tough and physical have been uttered in nearly every interview a player has given so far this season. They felt that despite having three seniors in the frontcourt they got pushed around way too much last season. It was the storyline leading into the Virginia game after the Cavaliers came to the Kohl Center last December and took a 60-54 win home with them. The exact opposite happened on Wednesday night in the Badgers win. And now with a visit from the team that shot 48 percent from the field in last year’s win there is more talk about not letting their neighbors to the east run roughshod over them.
“They’re a tough team,” said Gasser, who missed all of last year with a knee injury. “They defend really well. They’re fast, they’re strong, and they’re athletic. And if you don’t match their intensity and physicality, stuff like last year will happen. So we have to match that, and take it to a different level, and hopefully knock down some shots.”
Ah yes, shooting. It was a pitiful performance by Wisconsin last year. They were 17 of 52 (32.7 percent) from the field and just 7 of 25 (28 percent) from 3-point range. It was even worse at the free throw line where they missed more (14) than they made (9).
But the offensive end of the floor has rarely been a problem for the Badgers this year. They’re averaging 73.6 points per game and shooting nearly 46 percent. No, the issue had been on the other end of the floor where they gave up 75 to St. Johns and 85 to North Dakota while letting other teams back into games with poor communication and execution. But starting in their game against St. Louis in the Cancun Challenge, when they limited the Billikens to 32 percent from the field, and continuing into the championship against West Virginia, when they dominated the much bigger Mountaineers on the boards, and culminating in the 23-percent shooting performance by the Cavaliers, the Badgers are figuring things out.
“You saw it coming,” assistant coach Greg Gard said. “I think we were at a point where we had to get better. This program has always had a foundation of being very stingy defensively and trying to make people work for what they get. I think early in the year (we weren’t doing that). Whether it was the inexperience of having some new pieces in different places (or) not quite understanding rotations and how we need to protect areas of the floor. I thought against St. Louis and West Virginia we took steps forward and obviously we took a huge step (against Virginia), too. It’s good. It shows that guys are listening, they’re buying in and they’re working together.”
One of the big keys has been Gasser. Normally designated to cover the other team’s best perimeter player he has been working his way back from the torn ACL suffered last October. And judging by the night Virginia’s first-team All-ACC guard Joe Harris had – two points on 1 of 10 shooting from the floor – Gasser is giving the young Badgers what they need.
“We’ve seen what Josh has been able to add to this team and what we lacked last year in terms of what he brings in leadership and toughness and experience,” Gard said. “He’s logged a lot of miles in terms of his experience for only being in his third year of playing. That is probably the biggest thing, more so than one specific thing he does, just his presence and his poise that he brings and that’s infectious throughout everyone else as well.”
Now comes Marquette, who struggled on the offensive end of the floor before shooting 48 percent from the field in their last three games. Gone are two guys – Vander Blue and Junior Cadougan – that combined for 35 points in last year’s win. But one guy that had a big day against Wisconsin’s veteran front line -- especially early -- was forward Davante Gardner (10 points, 8 rebounds) and he returns. Marquette brings him off the bench – he was the Big East Sixth Man of the Year last season – but he still leads them in points (14.0) and rebounds (7.0) per game.
“He’s so good with his feet for a guy that size, especially offensively, to be able to move and get angles on guys and counter,” Gard said. “Extremely strong, obviously uses his body exceptionally well. Knows how to create space. Just a guy that’s gotten better throughout his career.”
And so for the 120th time the two schools that are separated by less than 80 miles will meet – with Wisconsin looking for a 10-0 start and the Golden Eagles looking for a non-conference win that they'll be able to hang their hat on come March.
“It’s going to be a big game. Classic Wisconsin, Marquette rivalry game,” Dekker said. “You throw records aside. You throw the talent on each side aside because it’s going to be a battle up front, and whoever wins the physical game is usually going to end up on top. That’s how it’s always been and that’s how we have to approach this game and win that.”
Listen to Zach Heilprin every weekday on “The Jump Around” at ESPNWisconsin.com, and follow him on Twitter: @zachheilprin