There truly is nothing like Big Ten basketball. So far in this young season, the Big Ten is shaping up to be one of the best conferences in the country, as it is year after year. Going into Tuesday night’s game against Maryland, the Badgers were considered near the bottom of the conference. But, after upsetting the No. 13 Terrapins 64-59 at the Kohl Center, it’s safe to say Wisconsin is ready to defend last season’s regular season title.
As Greg Gard continues his tribute to historical Badger basketball coaches — the iconic Dick Bennett red vest on Tuesday — he stayed consistent with his starters as well, putting out the same five as he has every game this season.
After an impressive performance in a thrilling win over Marquette, all eyes were on Chucky Hepburn to lead the Badgers to another high-powered offensive performance. And, to no surprise, he led the Badgers in scoring once again with 13 points. But, in the early minutes, it was all Steven Crowl.
Endearingly dubbed “Big Steve” by the Area Red student section, Crowl claimed his territory in the paint early, leading the starting five with four quick points inside. Just seven minutes in, all five starters found the bottom of the net, highlighted by a perfect 3-3 shooting start from Jordan Davis and efficient ball movement.
With halftime drawing closer, play was stopped possession after possession as the slew of questionable Big Ten referee decisions were relentless. After dominating the first minutes in the paint, the Badgers suddenly found themselves in foul trouble after multiple offensive and loose ball fouls, including three first half fouls for Wahl.
All being said, the Badgers’ balanced offensive production lifted them to a 31-29 halftime lead. Even with the significant rebounding deficit this season, Wisconsin basketball’s defensive reputation has held true, as each of the five starters recorded a steal and Wahl added two blocks to his nine points.
Per usual, halftime at the Kohl Center wouldn’t be complete without good entertainment. However, Wisconsin paid the price Tuesday as the Milwaukee Bucks’ Rim Rockers and mascot Bango broke the rim and brought about an extended halftime delay.
The Badgers came out hot after their extended halftime rest. A strong drive from Max Klesmit followed by multiple defensive stands helped the Badgers hang onto a small lead through the first few minutes of the second half. However, a combination of bad calls, offensive stagnancy from the Badgers and sharpshooting from the Terrapins closed the deficit that reached as high as eight points early in the second half.
Part of the offensive stall came from poor free throw shooting, which has not been common this season. The 72% season free throw percentage was not reflected down the stretch against Maryland, as the Badgers finished shooting 63% on Tuesday. Especially struggling were Wahl and Carter Gilmore, who consistently generated scoring opportunities but were unable to capitalize from the free throw line.
Nonetheless, two threes from Essegian in the late minutes of the game helped the Badgers close out late, as the freshman’s clutch shooting complemented Hepburn’s ever-developing late game three point shooting.
Free throws from Davis and Klesmit secured the game for Wisconsin, as No. 13 Maryland were handed their first loss of the season courtesy of the Badgers. Hepburn led the way with 13 points and four rebounds, followed by 12 points and six rebounds from Crowl and over seven points from the likes of Klesmit, Davis, Essegian, Wahl and Gilmore.
One of the most surprising pieces to the Badgers’ bench rotation thus far has been Gilmore, whose minutes have been increasing by the game. While the starting five has not changed yet this season, Gard’s trust in Gilmore, as well as Essegian and either Isaac Lindsey or Kamari McGee, is promising as they continue to develop an offense that was rather stagnant at the beginning of the season.
While defensive rebounding was an issue early against Maryland, and the Badgers were ultimately outrebounded by the Terrapins, the three point shooting continues to be the bright spot on an offense learning how to play without a superstar like Johnny Davis. The balanced scoring of the Badgers on Tuesday was perhaps the most promising sign of a functioning offense yet this season. And, of course, the defense remains a strength, as Wisconsin forced 14 turnovers, and recorded seven steals and three blocks.
The Badgers will next take the floor against Iowa in Iowa City with a perfect 2-0 Big Ten start in sight. The game tips off at 5:30 p.m. on Dec. 11, and can be found live on the Big Ten Network and the Badger Sports Network.