Wisconsin will have the advantage of an extra tune-up when the 15th-ranked Badgers resume Big Ten Conference play against visiting Minnesota on Tuesday night in Madison.
Wisconsin (10-2, 2-0 Big Ten), which had not played in 15 days due to a weather-related cancellation, posted a 76-66 nonconference win over Western Michigan on Friday behind a career-best 25 points from Steven Crowl.
Minnesota (6-6, 0-2 Big Ten) has not played since a 58-55 victory at home over Chicago State on Dec. 22. The Gophers’ home game scheduled for Thursday was canceled due to travel issues for Alcorn State.
Wisconsin led Western Michigan 29-27 at the half, but pulled away behind Crowl’s 20 points after the break. The 7-foot Crowl hit 9 of 13 shots, including 3 of 5 from beyond the arc, and collected a team-high eight rebounds.
“We were more consistent in the second half playing through the paint, and it showed in terms of what we did offensively, and then helped get our defense set so we get some separation,” Wisconsin coach Greg Gard said. “So, ready to get back into league play and start preparing for Minnesota tomorrow.”
Tyler Wahl leads a balanced attack with 14.1 points and 6.8 boards per game. Chucky Hepburn averages 11.9 points, Crowl 11.5 points and 6.6 boards, and sharp-shooting freshman guard Connor Essegian contributes 10.4 points off the bench with a team-high 26 3-pointers.
Crowl, listed at 217 pounds as a freshman and now closer to 250 pounds, has team highs of 40 assists and 10 blocks in his first season as a starter.
“I think you’re seeing a player grow up in front of your eyes in terms of maturing and understanding how good he can be,” Gard said. “And, I thought his teammates did a good job of finding him.”
The Badgers allow 61.3 points per game, while averaging 68.9. Wisconsin is 69-8 under Gard when holding opponents to 60 points or fewer, including 6-0 this season.
The Badgers, who led the nation in fewest turnovers each of the last two seasons, are averaging 9.8 this season, tied for fourth in the country. They had just four vs. Western Michigan, none in the second half.
Minnesota led Chicago State 44-34 with 16:23 left, but had to hold off the Cougars down the stretch.
The Gophers have three freshmen averaging around 20 minutes per game — Braeden Carrington (24.8), Pharrel Payne (21.1) and Jaden Henley (19.6), with Joshua Ola-Joseph at 17.7.
Dawson Garcia, a 6-foot-11 North Carolina transfer who began his career at Marquette, averages a team-best 14.3 points and 5.6 rebounds per game. Jamison Battle, who missed the first four games, averages 12.9 points.
Minnesota has struggled defensively against power opponents, allowing 75.8 points per game in losses to DePaul, UNLV, Virginia Tech, Purdue, Michigan and Mississippi State.
“I knew it was going to be challenging,” Minnesota coach Ben Johnson said. “I think our guys have not shied away from it. I think it’s good that we know what the level of expectation is, especially as you approach January, so there’s no surprises.”
Wisconsin has won 13 of the last 15 vs. Minnesota, including the last four. The Badgers swept last season, 66-60 at home, then 68-67 at Minnesota behind Crowl’s 20 points.
–Field Level Media