Big Ten pundits won’t find many surprises with No. 14 Wisconsin, which returned its entire starting lineup from last season and has had the chance to show some depth from its bench.
The Badgers (11-2) cruised through its nonconference schedule with a couple of bumps against ranked opponents, losing to Creighton and North Carolina.
Wisconsin hosts Rutgers in a Big Ten opener for both teams on Tuesday at the Kohl Center in Madison, Wis. The Scarlet Knights (11-2) are aiming to make an impact in their third season in a conference in which they have yet to be serious contenders.
No Wisconsin starter played more than 22 minutes in the Badgers’ 90-37 rout of Florida A&M on Dec. 23. Freshman guard D’Mitrik Trice scored a game-high 14 points in a reserve role.
According to Badgers coach Greg Gard, senior forward Vitto Brown had one of his strongest rebounding efforts of the season. Brown registered 11 points and had eight rebounds in 18 minutes against the Rattlers.
“I thought he rebounded as well as he has, maybe all year,” Gard said of Brown, a starter who is averaging 3.8 rebounds per game along with 8.0 points.
“He was pretty active. That’s one thing that he’s trying to improve and find other ways to contribute other than just shooting — defensively try to be more active, obviously, on the glass, being more of a presence on both ends of the floor.”
Senior guard Bronson Koenig (14.6 ppg) and senior forward Nigel Hayes (13.5 ppg) continue to pace the Badgers on offense. In the past seven games, Hayes has shot 59.4 percent (38 of 64) from the field and averaged 16 ppg.
Gard said he’s confident the Badgers are ready for Big Ten action. The Wisconsin coaching staff put the squad through a scrimmage last week, which ironed out a few things.
“We did a simulated game,” Gard said. “It wasn’t a complete 40 minutes, but it was 25, 28, or something like that. I think that helped.
“The mountain gets a lot steeper. The grade is going to up considerably from here on out.”
Rutgers posted a 3-33 record in its first two seasons in the Big Ten. During that span, the team didn’t win more than 12 games overall per season under former coach Eddie Jordan.
But there’s optimism with Steve Pikiell, in his first year at Rutgers. Even though its nonconference slate wasn’t terribly tough, he’s proud of what his young players accomplished during the early season.
Pikiell said he wants to see the Scarlet Knights string together a complete game, and effort on defense is one of his main priorities.
Rutgers is fresh off a 72-61 road loss to intrastate foe Seton Hall. The Scarlet Knights led for a stretch and tied the score with 6:00 left in regulation.
Junior guard Mike Williams and sophomore guard Corey Sanders are Rutgers’ returning starters. Williams is third in scoring at 11.4 ppg and pulls down 4.2 rpg. Sanders, who received All-Big Ten accolades during his freshman season, registers 10.7 ppg and paces the Scarlet Knights with 3.8 assists per game.
“I think we’re prepared for the Big Ten,” Pikiell said. “We’re going to have to go on the road and go into some real tough places. People have a lot of questions about us, which is fine. I like this team.
“I know our weaknesses, I know our strengths — we’re going to be a tough team. We’re going to defend and we’re going to get better defensively. We have three more defenses we’re putting in place as we move into league play.”