The Sixth Wheel

Rob Wilson (left) was on fire last Friday

With two contributors going through scoring slumps, the emergence of senior Rob Wilson over the last six games brings balance to No.4 seed Wisconsin. Averaging 11.3 points and 23.3 minutes per game over that stretch, Wilson will again be counted on Thursday afternoon when his team plays No.13 seed Montana in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

MADISON - Minutes after Michigan State beat Wisconsin in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals, Spartans guard Keith Appling applauded how tough the Badgers play, how physical the games between the schools usually are and how much effort the Spartans put in to shutting down a team that rarely beats itself.

In the scouting report late Thursday night, Appling said it was business as usual in preparing for Wisconsin, except head coach Tom Izzo made sure to devise a plan for senior guard Rob Wilson, who scored a career-high 30 points in a quarterfinal win over Indiana a day earlier.

"We guarded him like he was an All-American," said Appling. "We weren't going to let the guy beat us like he beat the Hoosiers."

Those are scouting reports and comments on Wilson that would have been ludicrous last year or even last month, but that's what can happen in a month of tournament basketball famous for its unpredictability and breakout performances.

Against No.15 Indiana in last Friday's Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal, Wilson had the collegiate game of his life. He hit 11 of 16 field goals, including seven 3-pointers, in 32 minutes in an eight-point win. His 30 points – a career-high and new school Big Ten Tournament record – represented all UW's bench points and got them into the second round for the first time in four years.

"It was funny he played that well because we (as coaches) talked about how the progress Rob had made in the last four, five games," said assistant coach Lamont Paris. "He was contributing more and how a senior recognizing it was his last few games. If that game wasn't inspired basketball, I have never seen it before."

It's a kind of performance Wisconsin hopes to get more from Wilson starting Thursday as the No. 4 seed Badgers (24-9) prepare to play No. 13 Montana (25-6) in the NCAA tournament at 1:10 p.m. CT Thursday in Albuquerque, N.M.

Once playing a total of 29 minutes over a six-game span from Jan. 18 to Feb. 9, Wilson has been on a six- game hot streak since scoring a then season-high 11 points against Iowa Feb.23. The lift Wilson brought off the bench, coupled with the struggles of some of his teammates, has made the senior UW coach Bo Ryan's first option off the bench. He's responded to the promotion.

He scored nine points and played 21 minutes in a win at Ohio State, giving him his first win in his last opportunity in his home state, and added eight points in 26 minutes in a win over Illinois on senior day before his headlining performance in Indianapolis.

Over his last six games, Wilson is averaging 11.3 points and 23.3 minutes per game, a huge jump considering his season average is 4.0 points and 12.0 minutes.

"I've been contributing and helping the team win when I can," said Wilson. "Being able to be out on the floor is great."

Wilson was on the court 32 minutes against Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament semifinal, but instead of getting the open shots the Hoosiers gave him, the Spartans clamped down defensively and allowed him only six points on five shots.

Wilson said it was probably the first time in his career he had been face guarded to the level that the Spartans' defenders attacked him, not to mention the amount of players that chased him off screens and gave him little space the second after he caught the ball.

"It showed me respect, but I don't want it," said Wilson with a laugh. "They didn't want me to get a shot off."

Wilson's production increase comes at a time when the Badgers are in dire need of extra offense. Over the last five games, sophomore guard Ben Brust is 2-for-13 and played only seven minutes against Indiana and three minutes against Michigan State. Junior Mike Bruesewitz is in an even bigger funk, going 0-for-18 on his 3-point attempts since February 16 and held under four points his last six games.

For a team that is 9-3 this season when it has four players in double figures, Wilson's sudden scoring push is a welcome addition.

"It gives us another guy who is aggressive, who can attack and he's probably a better attacker than some of the other guys we have," said Paris. "Having another threat stretches things out for Jordan Taylor and his teammates. If you look at the games that we've been really successful, we've had multiple guys that approach that double figure mark, so that really helps us. It gives guys confidence they can make a play later in the game."

During Wilson's first three seasons in the program, he played a total of 11 minutes with no points over four NCAA tournament games. He didn't even play in three other tournament contests, including the first two games last year.

Don't expect that kind of production this season from a player that is playing like his career is about to end.

"Every tournament we lost, I don't like that feeling," said Wilson. "I can always go back and just remember that feeling in the locker room after the loss. It's something I don't want to experience my senior year. Last year (against Butler), we were in position to win the game and we didn't handle business like we should have.

"What's better than having another game to play? It's not over yet, and I don't want it to end."

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