IOWA CITY, Iowa — No player wants to cop to a “most improved” player campaign because it means he was not so great the previous year.
Wisconsin forward Frank Kaminsky was OK last season. As a role player who made just two starts, he averaged 1.75 rebounds a game. He also was poked in the eye and sustained a cut on his iris and bleeding in his pupil, forcing him to miss two weeks. He was known more as the “guy who got poked in the eye.”
If the Big Ten had a “most improved” or “comeback” award, Kaminsky would have locked that away long ago.
Performances like Saturday’s 79-74 win for the No. 18 Wisconsin over No. 15 Iowa at Carver-Hawkeye Arena might push the 7-foot junior to first-team all-Big Ten.
The Badgers (22-5, 9-5 Big Ten) remain firmly in the Big Ten’s upper division, trailing Michigan State and Michigan by two games. Iowa (19-7, 8-5) probably kissed its regular-season title hopes goodbye with its third conference home loss.
Kaminsky poured in 21 points on 8-of-13 from the floor and was hugely clutch, which was the difference between the two teams in the end. During the last 36 seconds, Kaminsky banked in a jump shot to give the Badgers the lead for good, stripped Iowa guard Devyn Marble for a critical steal and made four free throws to seal it off.
“He’s improving,” Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. “Frank’s one of those guys who is doing a heck of a job on his learning curve. He’s really been sharp and attentive. He’s too tough on himself sometimes, but now he understands a little bit better and that’s what happens with maturity.”
The jumper came off a pick-and-roll pass from guard Josh Gasser to give the Badgers a 73-72 lead. The bigger play might have been the steal. Off a timeout with 32.5 seconds left, Marble, who led Iowa with 21 points and 11 assists, tried to cut to the basket. Kaminsky reached in and stripped away the ball.
“He tried to make a play and presented the ball,” Kaminsky said. “I just tried to hit it out of his hands. That’s one of those plays where it’s up to the ref to see what they’re going to call. I thought I got it clean, but you never know how it looks to a referee.”
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery wanted the ball to go to his best player in that situation.
“You call a play,” he said, “and then he’s got to read it. That’s what he did.”
Iowa guard Josh Oglesby kept the Hawkeyes just ahead with his second-half shooting, hitting 7 of 9 shots in the half and finishing with 17 points. Iowa had a 64-60 lead with 4:27 left, but Wisconsin immediately answered with guard Josh Gasser hitting a 3-pointer with one second left on the shot clock.
“You’ve just got to make plays sometimes,” said Gasser, who 12 points and four 3-pointers. “You run your offense, you look to see what you can get. But a lot of times during games, you have to make a big play, make a big shot.”
Forward Sam Dekkar added 15 points, including two highlight dunks, and 11 rebounds. Guard Bronson Koenig added 12 points, a career high and his most since November.
The Badgers have won five straight after living through a horrendous shooting slump that saw them lose five of six in January.
“We were in a little bit of a shooting slump,” Ryan said. “That’s the only way I can say it. If you shoot like that in this league, one through 12, you’re going down.”
Because of last week’s postponement at Indiana, the Hawkeyes face a stretch of five games in the next 14 days. The goal after Saturday’s loss is a top-four finish in the conference and a bye on the first day of the Big Ten Tournament.
Maybe it is a good thing Iowa will not have much time to think about this one.
“You’ve got a brutal week (ahead),” McCaffery said, “Two road games and a home game, all three against really good teams.”
Iowa forward Melsahn Basabe played just one minute against Wisconsin. The senior, who averages 8.1 points and
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