Wisconsin is banking that a taste of big-game experience will prove beneficial when the Badgers square off Friday against Creighton.
The No. 12 and 14 Bluejays will be the second nationally ranked team Wisconsin faces in its first five games. The Badgers already lost at No. 7 and 8 Florida 74-56 Nov. 9.
“I think getting that early test from Florida is going to help us going into that Creighton game because we've played a quality opponent already,” said freshman Sam Dekker, who averages 10.5 points per game. “We know what we have to do to win.”
The Badgers will bring a 3-1 record into the semifinals of the Las Vegas Invitational at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas. The winner of the 9 p.m. contest will advance to Saturday's championship game and face either Arizona State or Arkansas.
Creighton has won its four home games by an average of 28.5 points. Wisconsin's three wins have come by an average of almost 40 points but the setback to the Gators knocked the Badgers out of national rankings.
Like Creighton, Wisconsin returned four starters from an NCAA tournament team. Like the Bluejays, the Badgers knew replacing their starting point guard would be a tall order. Jordan Taylor led Wisconsin in scoring and assists last season while directing a 26-win season.
Coach Bo Ryan was set to turn over the offense to junior Josh Gasser, but he suffered a season-ending knee injury in preseason drills. That's left redshirt freshman George Marshall as the starter.
The Badgers also lost senior forward Mike Bruesewitz for most of the preseason when he suffered a leg laceration in early October that required surgery. He made it back in time for the start of the season and has played an average of 21 minutes per game.
In addition to Marshall, Ryan has two other freshmen — Dekker and Zak Showalter — in the rotation along with transfer Zach Bohannon.
“It's been good that we can feel out our teammates and pick up on tendencies of what each other is going to do,” guard Ben Brust said. “Now, it's just about getting rested and preparing for our next opponent. I know we can play with anybody in the country, but we just have to do it together.”
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Brust has been one of the early-season surprises, not so much with his scoring — he leads the Badgers with a 14.5 average — but with his rebounding. The 6-foot-1 Brust is averaging a team-high 9.3 rebounds and has posted double-doubles in three of the first four contests.
“He's got a nose for the ball,” Ryan said. “How can a guy do that at his size as many times? The opportunities are there sometimes. Missed shot bounce his way. Where hard work meets opportunity, guys can get pretty lucky.
“It seems like a lot for a little guy, but it's not. He's working hard, he's got the opportunities, and he's taking advantage of them.”
Senior forward Jared Berggren and Dekker have added scoring support for Brust. The 6-10 Berggren is averaging 13.5 points per game and supplying the Badgers with strong defense in the post. His matchup against Creighton's 6-9 Gregory Echenique will bear watching.
Dekker is shooting 55.6 percent from the field and 50 percent from 3-point range.
Creighton and Wisconsin have a common opponent in Presbyterian. The Bluejays handed the Blue Hose an 87-58 defeat Sunday. The Badgers hammered Presbyterian 88-43, with their 16 3-point baskets one shy of the school record.
Presbyterian coach Gregg Nibert, who might be prone to exaggeration with his postgame comments, called Wisconsin's display of passing and shooting the best he's seen in the Blue Hose's short Division I tenure. After Creighton did much the same against his team, Nibert said he sees Creighton playing in the Final Four in April.
Nibert does see Friday's game as being quite the battle.
“It will be a tremendous game,” he said. “What Creighton had when we played them, and that's why they're great, is they come off the bench and are good. They've got a complete team of 10 players.
“Wisconsin comes off the bench big. It will be a great matchup, a two- to four-point game. It's who will make the shots and who makes the plays. Both teams aren't good with their first five, but they're good when they come off the bench.”
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