INDIANAPOLIS — One of the things that has set the Big Ten Conference apart in men's basketball this season is the abundance of good big men in the league.
According to many advanced metrics, the Big Ten this season is rated the strongest conference in college basketball history. A big reason is the Big Ten has become the land of the giants.
Most of the Big Ten's top teams feature players who have great size and are prolific low-post scorers. Five players who fit that description — Iowa's Luka Garza, Illinois' Kofi Cockburn, Michigan's Hunter Dickinson, Purdue's Trevion Williams and Indiana's Trayce Jackson-Davis — were named first-team all-Big Ten by either the coaches or media. Most have the ability to dominate a game on both ends of the court, but especially on offense.
No team knows that better than the University of Wisconsin.
Though their shooting woes have stolen the headlines over the last month, the Badgers were unable to contain most of those centers and paid a steep price for it during a Big Ten regular season that saw them go a disappointing 10-10 and finish in sixth place. Though UW returned senior big men Nate Reuvers and Micah Potter, it has been bullied by opposing big men in most of its key conference games.
Indeed, eight of UW's 10 Big Ten losses were strongly impacted by an opposing big man. The Badgers were 0-6 against Iowa, Michigan and Illinois and also lost to Purdue, when Williams and 7-foot-4 freshman Zach Edey controlled the game with what amounted to a tag team, and Penn State, when 6-foot-9 bruiser John Harrar had a career game. In those eight losses, the centers going against UW averaged 20.4 points and 11 rebounds per game.
That is not a blanket indictment of UW's big men, though they certainly share the blame for the less-than-stellar defense on opposing big men. Interior defense is traditionally a community effort for the Badgers. They rely on team defense to make it difficult for big men to operate, but the help this season hasn't been up to past standards.
Of course, plenty of teams have had trouble defending Garza, the two-time Big Ten player of the year. But that was no consolation to the Badgers when they met Iowa in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament Friday night at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The magnitude of the task was enormous, especially given the firepower Iowa has surrounding Garza. And though UW's defense made life difficult for Garza over the final 30 minutes, he proved to be too much for the Badgers in the end.
With Garza matching his usual numbers, UW suffered a 62-57 loss to Iowa that left only the NCAA tournament remaining for a team that started the season with so much promise. Still, UW's third loss to Iowa this season was a hard-fought game that wasn't decided until UW went cold — where have we heard that before? — in the final 8 minutes.
Iowa's massive center had averaged 25.5 points and 12 rebounds per game in the Hawkeyes' first two victories over the Badgers. This time, Garza had 24 points, nine rebounds, four blocked shots, three assists and one steal, a full night's work. But the game was played at UW's pace and it wasn't until Garza's teammates stepped up in the second half that the Hawkeyes got rolling. Even then, they needed two huge UW turnovers at the end to secure the victory.
UW coach Greg Gard employed an interesting strategy with Garza in the first half, basically playing him one-on-one and putting defensive pressure on Iowa's impressive array of outside shooters. Though Garza had glowing numbers, UW took a 32-26 lead into the halftime locker room, mainly because Garza got little scoring help from his teammates.
For the half, Garza scored 18 points with three rebounds and three blocked shots. Normally, those stats would have put Iowa in a comfortable lead, but not this time. While Garza went 7-for-10 from the field, his teammates were only 4-for-18 with eight turnovers in the half.
Garza got Reuvers in quick foul trouble and his 12 points staked Iowa to an 18-11 lead midway through the half, but Potter is stronger and better equipped to body up to Garza anyway. Potter wasn't perfect, but over the final 10 minutes of the half he made it difficult for Iowa to get the ball to Garza in deep.
The other Hawkeyes began shooting better in the second half and the game went back and forth until the end as Garza was held scoreless for the final 10:50. But with UW keeping an eye on Garza, others found lanes to the basket a handful of times in the closing minutes.
"I didn't think we started well (on Garza)," Gard said. "I thought we let him get post touches in transition. I felt we got better as the half went on. Obviously, he's a handful. He works so hard. He's made himself into a terrific player. ... I thought we did a decent job on him and I thought we did a decent job defensively on the group — 2-for-20 from 3, kept them off the free-throw line. It was our turnovers and our inability to defensive rebound at key times that was the difference."
Despite the defeat, all was not lost in the Big Ten tournament for UW. The Badgers were productive on offense at times in their two games and played with a renewed passion. It just wasn't good enough to prevent another quality big man from beating them.
Photos: Badgers struggle to score as Hawkeyes come through in the clutch