They're not there yet, but if the Wisconsin Badgers can continue to defend the way they did on Sunday afternoon against Penn State, an NCAA Tournament bid might still greet Bo Ryan's ballclub.
Flexing their defensive muscles, the Badgers bullied the Nittany Lions in Happy Valley, 54-44, to re-enter the Big Dance discussion table. After being off the radar for a few weeks, it can be said that Wisconsin is back on the bubble, with a chance to move upward in the Big Ten pecking order. Now tied for seventh with Michigan at 5-6 in the league, UW could punch another premium postseason ticket with a big month of basketball. If the Badgers can indeed pull off such a feat, they'll look to this conquest of the Bryce Jordan Center as the day their season changed.
While Wisconsin is still limited in its ability to score the ball, the men from Madison can always win games with the lunch-pail defense that's become a staple of the past decade and a half under Ryan and his predecessor, Dick Bennett. So far in this 2009 season, the Badgers' better defensive efforts hadn't been able to overcome their pronounced offensive shortcomings. In this confrontation with Ed DeChellis's Nittany Lions, UW's defense--raised to the level of an art form--managed to dominate and dictate from start to finish. A meager 54-point performance was still good enough to rack up a double-digit victory that felt as comfortable as it looked.
The simple story of Wisconsin's virtually flawless defensive display could be found in two statistics: One concerned Penn State's three point shooting; the other dealt with the man primarily responsible for that first statistic.
The first and most obvious reason why the Badgers snagged a significant road victory was that the Lions--especially point guard Talor Battle--failed to hit a single three-point shot. Battle, the Big Ten's leading scorer, went 0-for-6 beyond the arc, while his teammates went 0-for-8 from long distance. Penn State depends on the trifecta for much of its offensive production, so an 0-for-14 afternoon from three-point range will almost certainly spell doom for the Nittany Nation's hoops heroes.
The second telltale statistic in this game could be indirectly connected to the first. Wisconsin guard Trevon Hughes--who drew Battle as his defensive assignment--went 1-for-10 from the field at the offensive end of the floor and finished with just 4 points. On most days, that kind of scoreline has spelled certain death for Wisconsin in 2009, but the meager offensive output by Hughes proves how much he focused on the defensive side of this game. He didn't have legs under his jumper, and he still couldn't slash to the basket, but by cracky, when Hughes had to play defense against the top gun in the conference, the Wisconsin guard genuinely badgered his opponent.
Battle had an occasional open look against Hughes, but only as the result of hoisting a particularly deep jumper. Unlike PSU's win at Michigan State on Feb. 1, Battle's especially long threes didn't fall on this afternoon in University Park, which in turn enabled Hughes to smother the Nittany Lions' offensive catalyst within 20 feet of the basket. Battle's final total of 10 points might not seem so shocking unless one considers the fact that Penn State's prime point-producer gained a few layups late in regulation time, when Hughes--his team in front by three or four possessions--was happy to concede a two-point basket. A 10-point game might suggest a modest amount of success on the part of Talor Battle, but Trevon Hughes came mighty close to shutting him out... as close as anyone could ever hope to do this season.
And so, with the Big Ten campaign now just past the midway point, it seems as though Penn State--held down in each of its past two outings--is hitting a wall. Meanwhile, Wisconsin is finding a second wind. The ability of the Nittany Lions to regroup--and of the Badgers to sustain their resurgence--will determine where these teams are playing when the middle of March arrives.