CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -
There's a big difference between the Wisconsin
Badgers of today and the Badgers of February 9. How big? About 6 feet, 10 inches worth.
Despite being out shot in four games and out rebounded in another four, the Badgers were surviving without junior Jon Leuer in the lineup, having played seven games and had a respectable 5-2 mark without the second-leading scorer, who was recovering from a broken bone in his left wrist.
But Leuer's absence reared its ugly head in a home game against unranked Illinois on that day in February, when the lack of presence in the post allowed junior guard Demetri McCamey and center Mike Tisdale to get the looks it needed to register a 63-56 road upset over then-No.11 Wisconsin.
McCamey scored a game-high 27 points on 11-of-17 shooting and Tisdale made 8-of-11 shots for 19 points, accounting for 73 percent of the Fighting Illini offense, a huge bonus since no other Illini member scored over nine points.
"(McCamey) struggled at the start, dropped a pass out of bounds, missed a few shots, had some turnovers, but then he got a layup and that let him get going," sophomore Jordan Taylor said. "As good of a player he is, he could be an NBA player some day, so you can't give a guy like that an inch of space or it'll end up being 27 points."
Things of changed for the better since, as Illinois (18-12, 10-7 Big Ten) will find out when they square off with No.15 Wisconsin (22-7, 12-5) at Assembly Hall Sunday in the Big Ten finale for both teams.
That loss to Illini, the last time the Badgers failed to hang on to a double-digit lead, was glaring due to the lack of production from the post, particularly in the second half. Shooting 25.8 percent as a team in the closing half, the Badgers saw its two post players – Tim Jarmusz and Keaton Nankivil – go a combined 0-of-8 from the floor.
"Watching your teammates take a bump is definitely tough," Leuer said. "You want to be out there with them. But I just felt for the guys that were playing. They played really hard and Illinois just hit some tough shots."
Since struggling with his shot (2-of-12, four points) in his return to Minnesota, Leuer has averaged 14 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.3 blocks in the past three games, and the Badgers look more and more like a cohesive unit with him shaking off the rust.
"I think each game he's looked more comfortable in recognizing game speed and reactions," UW coach Bo Ryan. "Some people would say that you didn't play a big team or didn't do this or that. I know that's all part of it. We knew he would struggle early getting back on the court, but the game goes on.
"We can't halt the game at Minnesota and go, ‘Wait, give us another day or two before we play this.' (When) he's comfortable or in a rhythm, he can be a pretty good player."
The re-emergence of Leuer has allowed the balance to return to the Wisconsin offense. In nine games without Leuer, the Badgers attempted an average of 26.3 three pointers, making better than 40 percent only twice. In the last three games with Leuer, the Badgers have shot 20 or fewer threes each outing, making 51 percent or better each time.
The key, according to senior Jason Bohannon, is getting the ball consistently into the post and from there, kicking the ball to the open shooters instead of shooting quickly off the dribble or off a ball screen.
"We're still utilizing that," Bohannon admitted, "but there are other instances where the initial shot is coming from. Jon provides another angle for us offensively and defensively."
Not only is the balance better, the dependability of having a confident Leuer in the post is taking pressure off other contributors. Without Leuer, Nankivil was the most experienced post player in the rotation and the scoring burden could be seen taking its toll. With Leuer back, Nankivil is at ease, having made 13-of-19 shots (68.4 percent) in the last four games.
"He is obviously really talented and he knows the game," Leuer said. "Having him as the other big out there frees up a lot because he can shoot (and) he can post up. You can't help off him. He is a fun guy to play with. He is unselfish and it definitely brings my confidence up, too."
And so are the rest of the Badgers when it comes to shot selection. Against Iowa, Wisconsin shot 58.3 percent in the first half to open a 22-point lead, the sixth time in eight games the Badgers has shot better than 50 percent in the first 20 minutes.
"Having Jon back is obviously nice, having another inside presence," Taylor said. "When you get a guy like him back, getting back the high percentage shots he takes, us shooting better is attributed to him. That helps, and we are getting better looks from three-point range because people have to focus on him inside."
The balance will be crucial against an Illinois team Wisconsin will most likely face twice in a six day window, here Sunday and Friday in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals in Indianapolis, making it the first time since 2007 when the Badgers played an opponent in back-to-back games (Michigan State).
"One of our goals was to win the Big Ten, but we have a lot of other goals out there," Taylor said. "One is beating Illinois on Sunday and then go on from there and hopefully win a Big Ten Tournament championship. It's March, and most teams are peaking at this time, so we have to keep getting better.
"If we see them again, we'll just have to look at the film and try to get better."
When Illinois beat Wisconsin in the team's first meeting, the Badgers only loss at home all season, the Fighting Illini got hot shooting from its two leading scorers and dominated the post. A month later, Jon Leuer is back in the lineup, something No.15 Wisconsin hopes will make the difference.
Leuer's return to the lineup makes Wisconsin think Illinois outcome will be different