MADISON, Wis. — There are no egos at Wisconsin, no individual superstars carrying the team.
Relentless, hard-nosed and, yes, frustrating are the hallmarks of these Badgers — and they love it. They’ve embraced the defense-first approach and ridden it all the way back to the NCAA tournament for a 15th consecutive year, 12 straight under coach Bo Ryan.
“We’re going to be consistent, work hard, stick to our defensive principles and play as a team,” said senior Jared Berggren, who averages 11.1 points and 6.9 rebounds per game. “There’s no one individual that is going to have a big ego or try to do too much by himself.”
Wisconsin is a trendy pick for some as the Badgers (23-11), a five seed in the West Region, prepare for Friday’s game against 12th-seed Mississippi (26-8) in Kansas City, Mo. They beat both Indiana and Michigan last week in the Big Ten tournament.
Wisconsin currently ranks fourth in scoring defense (55.9 points per game) among Division I teams, finished first last season (53.2 ppg) and has ranked among the top 10 in the category for seven straight seasons.
Making the most of defensive assignments is one reason why Wisconsin has won seven games against teams ranked in the top 15 this season, including those league tourney wins last week.
“I think we’ve shown we’re a group that’s going to persevere no matter what the adversity is that we’re facing and just find a way to grit out some wins, and hopefully we can show that going into the tournament,” Berggren said.
Mike Bruesewitz has persevered through an injury-filled season and is looking to make an impact in the tournament. The senior missed the entire preseason after a severe laceration to his right leg, and a concussion forced him to miss two non-conference games.
The 6-foot-6 forward has lifted his level of postseason play the last couple years, averaging 7.7 points and 5.0 rebounds per game during the 2011 and 2012 NCAA tournaments. In addition, he shot 57.1 percent from the field and 47.1 percent from 3-point range in helping the Badgers reach the Sweet 16 both times.
Bruesewitz has collected his share of scrapes and bruises during a career diving for loose balls, taking charges and “being a nuisance” against opponents. It’s a style of play he’s relished while playing for Ryan.
“We’re hard, we’re tough-nosed and we play defense,” Bruesewitz said. “It’s something we preach. Playing for him, that’s something I’ve always embraced. That’s one reason I came here. The media can define it all they want. We know what we’ve got in our locker room. We’ve got a bunch of guys who are tough and want to play.”
Sharpshooter Ben Brust, the team’s scoring leader at 11.2 points per game, said he has learned to diversify his shot selection.
“If the shots aren’t falling, I’m finding other ways to help this team,” Brust said. “It could be getting in there, or feeding the big guy and letting him do work; trying to cut real hard and open up somebody else for a shot also is important.”
Brust’s proficiency from 3-point range has been a factor with the Badgers’ accomplishments this season, and included two dazzling long-range shots that helped lead Wisconsin to a regular-season overtime win against Michigan last month.
Brust is fresh off a solid performance in the Big Ten tournament in which he averaged 10.7 points per game and shot 42.9 percent (6 of 14) from 3-point range. The junior shot 39.7 percent (77 of 194) in Big Ten games this season, but said even when the shots aren’t falling, they won’t stray from their defensive strategy.
“Whether (our shooting) is up or whether it’s down, we know that we need to play defense, because if we’re playing defense we’re going to most likely (contend) in the game,” Brust said. “We can win some games if we’re not shooting well when we play defense. That’s something we have to be looking for, we have to keep playing good defense. If the shots are falling, we’re a tough team to beat.”