MADISON - Having scored 50 points or less in three straight games for the first time since the 1996-97 season, Wisconsin basketball is admittedly in a scoring rut.
But in a conference where the league's top five teams are separated by two games of less, the Badgers – despite having the third-worst scoring offense (56.5 points per game) and the worst free throw shooting percentage (51.9) in conference games – are standing two games out of first place because their bench play has been a necessary spark in dormant times.
"Being fresh and studying the game, you pick up a lot of things on the sideline," said freshman Sam Dekker. "When you come in, you can see what you can do to exploit something you see. We like bringing the energy."
The energy has been noticeable after Wisconsin wrapped up its toughest stretch of the season – playing five ranked team in six games and finishing the six games at 3-3 – and will be key when the Badgers face a struggling Illinois team Sunday at Assembly Hall.
Setting the tone by outscoring No.2 Indiana's bench 16-2 in Jan.15, Wisconsin's reserves scored 35 points at Iowa (outscoring the starters by five) and outscored both Michigan State and Minnesota. The bench play matters, considering the bench only scored five points in a second half where Ohio State outscored Wisconsin by 11 in a nine-point victory.
"We have a lot of people that can come off the bench and bring us energy at any point in any game," said sophomore Frank Kaminsky, a vital portion of UW's rotation who returned against missing the past three games. "I have a lot of confidence in this team that anyone can step up and be effective in any game."
After initially looking like Wisconsin's rotation could go upwards of 10 deep at the beginning of the season, Wisconsin has relied on Dekker, Kaminsky and redshirt freshman George Marshall to be energizers.
Dekker – the former five-star recruit – has been Bo Ryan's biggest bench asset, averaging 22.1 minutes and ranks fourth on the team with 9.0 points per game. Scoring in double figures in four of the last six games, Dekker is shooting 46.9 percent from the field and his 31 made 3-pointers is the fifth-highest total for a freshman in Wisconsin annals (18 behind Devin Harris' record).
"Coach (Ryan) always says that when he's putting bench guys in that he's not waving the white flag," said Dekker. "He wants others to step up. When guys need a break, we can relieve them for a couple minutes. If we're hot, he can keep us in there, keep us going and keep us confident."
Kaminsky was a vital factor in the win over the Hoosiers, hitting back-to-back three-pointers promptly after entering the game before getting racked across the eyes. He was diagnosed with hyphema, a collection of blood in the front portion of the eye, and is forced to wear protective goggles while still struggling with bright light.
"That was probably the best three minutes he had all year," said senior forward Mike Bruesewitz of Kaminsky's Indiana game. "He hit two big threes and played great defense for us."
The first Wisconsin freshman to start the season opener since Harris since 2001, Marshall recovered from losing his starting role after six games to be the key guard component off the bench.
Shooting 41.2 percent (28-of-68) on the season, which ranks seventh in the Big Ten, Marshall has not turned the ball over since UW's Big Ten opener, a span of seven games and 115 minutes. He proved he was a scorer, too, scoring a career-high 20 points against Iowa.
He scored all 20 in the second half, including 16 in the final 4:33, to join Harris and Jon Leuer as the only freshman to score 20 or more points in a Big Ten game under Bo Ryan.
"We need that more of that," said Bruesewitz. "(The bench) has been huge. They've been doing a great job for us. We have a lot of guys coming off the bench. We need more guys coming off the bench and adding."
In Wisconsin's 74-51 wire-to-wire home victory over Illinois Jan.12, the Illini's bench scored 18 points, a skewed state considering Wisconsin led by as many as 28 points in the second half. But as good as Illinois' three starting guards – D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul and Tracy Abrams – have been, Illinois have gotten production from its reserves.
In the Illini's 80-75 loss at East Lansing Thursday, Illinois' three reserves – Joseph Bertrand, Myke Henry, and Tyler Griffey – shot 57.1 percent (8-for-14) from the floor, 19 points, eight rebounds and no turnovers.
In Big Ten play, Dekker, Kaminsky and Marshall are shooting 42.2 percent, 14.8 points per game and 1.6 turnovers per game.
"I think that's what makes a good team: have a bunch of people that are committed to one thing," said Kaminsky. "We are a young team, but we have a lot of good players on this team."