BERKELEY, Calif. – Wisconsin’s home court advantage at Kohl Center is so overwhelming that California head coach Mike Montgomery used the term “surprise” three times in four sentences to describe the Badgers’ 60-54 loss to Virginia in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge on Wednesday night.
“It was a surprise only because they lost at home. They are really difficult to beat there,” Montgomery said.
And while Montgomery has been known to underplay things in his typically sardonic delivery, there is nothing to dismiss about the success in Madison. Under head coach Bo Ryan, Wisconsin (4-3) is an incredible 169-16 at home during his 12 years. That .914 winning percentage is fifth best in the country over that span.
The track record is even better in non-conference games, as former Washington State head coach Tony Bennett handed Ryan just his seventh such loss at home, as the usually stout Wisconsin defense allowed 45.7 percent shooting from the field. Junior guard Ben Brust led the way with 15 points on 6-of-16 shooting.
Montgomery knows to expect a stronger performance from Wisconsin on Sunday (1 p.m. Pacific, Big Ten Network) as it looks to avoid a rare losing streak, while the fans should be even more frenzied celebrating the Badgers’ Big Ten championship and third consecutive Rose Bowl berth.
Well before the 70-31 throttling of Nebraska on the gridiron in Indianapolis on Saturday night, forward Richard Solomon was energized by the atmosphere he will face.
“Oh my goodness, I know it is going to be crazy. I just know,” Solomon said Tuesday. “I’ve never been to Wisconsin, but I have seen them play on TV and I have seen their fan base is pretty crazy.
“Then (former Minnesota guard) Justin (Cobbs), he played in the Big Ten and he said it is a pretty hard place to play.”
For Cal (6-0), it represents only their second true road test away from Haas Pavilion this season, and last before opening Pac-12 play at UCLA on Jan. 3. The challenge, Montgomery said, is developing poise and remembering to play hard all the time, something they struggled with at times even as they won the DirecTV Classic last weekend in Anaheim.
There was a three-point win over Drake, in which Montgomery admitted Cal was outplayed for most of the game and lucky to escape. Even the championship game over Pacific saw the Tigers pull within five before the Bears responded to pull away.
“We’ve been through some adversity and bounced back where we’ve gotten down and had to play hard to win,” Montgomery said.
Wisconsin however will present a different challenge, with the best frontcourt player Cal has seen to date in center Jared Berggren, who averages 14.7 points and 6.4 rebounds per game. His 15 blocked shots leads the conference, anchoring a defense that should be among the nation’s best by year’s end, after finishing in the top 12 nationally in points allowed in nine of the last 10 seasons.
Opponents turn the ball over 12.7 times per game, while Wisconsin has a whopping 49 steals already, relying on that rugged play to make up for offensive limitations as sophomore Traevon Jackson works into the role of starting point guard.
“They’re not going to beat themselves, they’re not going to make a lot of mistakes,” Montgomery said. “The crowd will pick them up.”
But Solomon said the energy of the fans works both ways. While the home team feeds off the environment, Cal will find equal inspiration from their silence.
Said Solomon: “It just makes you want to do more just to shut them up.”
Dan Greenspan is the publisher of Cal Sports Digest and writes about the Pac-12 for Fox Sports Next. Follow him on Twitter @DanGreenspan.