The last time Wisconsin played a basketball game without Traevon Jackson in the starting lineup was Nov. 24, 2012. For the next two seasons, Jackson started 84 consecutive games and the Badgers won 64 of them, including four in last year’s NCAA tournament that resulted in the school’s third Final Four berth and a 15-2 start to this season.
On Thursday, Jackson was scheduled to have surgery to repair the broken right foot he suffered in Sunday’s stunning 67-62 loss at lowly Rutgers, and just hours later, his teammates -- including All-America forward Frank Kaminsky, who missed that loss to the Scarlet Knights with a concussion -- took the floor without him for their game against Nebraska in Madison. Jackson is expected to miss at least the next six weeks, and it would be foolish to suggest that Wisconsin won’t feel his absence at some point during that time.
For one night, however, the seventh-ranked Badgers didn’t miss him at all. In fact, they didn’t miss much of anything in their 70-55 win over the Cornhuskers. Led by Kaminsky’s 22 points on 7-of-11 shooting from the field, Wisconsin made 48.8 percent for the game -- exactly their season average -- after being well north of 50 percent until garbage time, and sank 11 of 21 from three-point range, their best showing from deep this season.
Much of the credit for that seamless performance goes to head coach Bo Ryan and his unique and hard-to-guard swing offense. A fair amount also belongs to his core group of veteran players who have grown comfortable with each other over the past two seasons by virtue of spending a lot of time on the court together. In fact, only seven Badgers average double-figure minutes; none of them is a freshman and all of them play at least 19 minutes per game.
Jackson, of course, is one of those seven, and without him, Ryan not only didn’t extend his bench, he actually shortened it. Duje Dukan, a fifth-year senior forward, averages 19 minutes per game but played only 13 on Thursday, and the rest of Wisconsin’s reserves combined for only 25 minutes, and this in a game the Badgers led by at least double figures for the final 13 minutes.
The man who replaced Jackson in the starting lineup and ate up most of those extra minutes is the same one who is now tasked with keeping Wisconsin in contention for a Big Ten title and a No. 1 seed until he returns. Sophomore Bronson Koenig, making only his second career start, played a career-high 37 minutes and finished with 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting (3 of 4 from beyond the arc), though he managed just one assist (against one turnover).
Koenig may not be the experienced playmaker that Jackson is, but the latter’s 9.4 points and 2.9 assists per game are hardly irreplaceable, especially against the soft Big Ten slate that Koenig will be asked to navigate. The Badgers, who remain tied for first in the conference with Maryland, have only one game with a ranked opponent left on their schedule, and that doesn’t come until they face the Terrapins in College Park on Feb. 24, by which time it’s entirely possible that Jackson will be back in uniform.
Of course, it is the player who was already back in uniform on Thursday who holds the real key to his team’s season. Kaminsky made 4 of 5 from outside and grabbed five rebounds in 30 minutes, right on his season average. More importantly, he displayed no hesitation or lingering effects from his concussion.
Without Kaminsky and Jackson, the Badgers proved mortal against one of the conference’s worst teams. With their 7-foot star back in action one day after being named to the Wooden Award watch list, they regained their winning ways with relative ease. As long as Kaminsky continues to perform at that level over the next six weeks, Wisconsin should be just fine until its senior point guard can come back and perhaps begin a new streak of consecutive games started. That one will end far short of 84, but as long as it ends on a Monday night in April in Indianapolis it will be as if he never left at all.