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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Gatekeepers

Penn State had plenty to prove Tuesday night. The Nittany Lions needed to prove they could bounce back from a devastating meltdown against Minnesota, that they could hang with the Big Ten's elite and that they would be worthy of an NCAA bid come tournament time.

None of that happened. Wisconsin went into Happy Valley as gatekeepers and shut the door on Penn State early with stifling defense and uncharacteristicly hot 3-point shooting. The home team managed only one basket in the first eight minutes of play, by which time UW held an 18-2 lead. When PSU star Geary Claxton was lost to a knee injury near the midway point of the first half, this game was unofficially O-V-E-R. [box score]

Michael Flowers put forth maybe the finest all-around effort of his career, pacing Wisconsin with a career-high 23 points. He added 6 rebs, 5 assts, and one dynamic steal and lay-up. See what happens when you don't get into foul trouble, Mike? Flowers' 5-of-6 shooting on treys led the team to a 10-of-16 performance overall behind the arc. Not surprisingly then with the outside shot falling, neither team went to the free throw line much.

With a sizable lead, it was refreshing to see the Wisconsin players act like they smelled blood. Instead of letting another less talented league foe hang around, the Badgers shot with confidence and made the kill. And of course, they killed the Nittany Lions on the glass as well, led by Brian Butch's 12 boards.

We are witnessing a historic run by Butch, by the way. The former McDonald's All-American is on pace to have 256 rebounds by the end of the season, assuming he remains healthy and the Badgers play at least one game in the Big Ten tournament and one in the NCAA tournament. That is a conservative, but fair, estimate for number of games played and should he keep this pace, Butch could rise as high as 7th on Wisconsin's all-time career rebounding list. He is already halfway toward shattering the single-season UW record for offensive rebounds. The Polar Bear has 51 through the first 16 games; the current record of 86 was set by Alando Tucker in 2003 (as a freshman!).

With second-chance opportunities limited by Butch and Co., the Nittany Lions could not afford to shoot under 37% to Wisconsin's nearly 60%. Penn State's spirit clearly was broken with Claxton out. The Nittany Lions allowed the Badgers to throw a 19-0 run on them toward the end of the game that turned 12-point lead into an enormous 31-point lead. Now that it appears Claxton is out for the season, the Penn State postseason drive may have already been derailed ... yet again.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin's balance continues to be a major strength. A different player has led the team in scoring in each of the last four games. Flowers did nothing to nothing to kick me out of the driver's seat of his bandwagon -- I've always said when he is at his best, Wisconsin is nearly unbeatable.

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