MINNEAPOLIS -- Coach Bo Ryan has helped Wisconsin become one of the Big Ten's best teams in his six years at the school.
Alando Tucker has led the Badgers further than that, into the nation's elite as his senior season comes closer to an end.
Tucker helped third-ranked Wisconsin overcome a flat first half, scoring 29 points to lead the Badgers in a 75-62 victory at rival Minnesota on Wednesday night.
After the game, the superlatives were predictably flowing from both teams about the 6-foot-6 forward who will leave this spring with several of the school's career records.
"Alando Tucker is the best player in college basketball. Hands down. No one even comes close," said Gophers center Spencer Tollackson.
Kammron Taylor added 12 points and Michael Flowers had 11 points for the Badgers (25-2, 11-1), who maintained their tie with Ohio State for first place in the Big Ten after becoming more patient on offense after halftime and finding better shots.
"I think we calmed down. We kind of let the crowd get to us in the first half," said Taylor, another senior who made his last Williams Arena performance his best. In 2006, he had seven turnovers and eight points on 2-for-7 shooting.
The Barn was packed and pumped full of noise for the first time this season, thanks to all the Wisconsin fans who showed up. But each side had chances to cheer, and the back-and-forth between the rival groups made for a raucous atmosphere that the Gophers (9-17, 3-9) haven't heard here much lately.
"I thought that was probably the best game we played all year," said Tollackson, who scored 13 points before fouling out with 8:08 remaining.
Lawrence McKenzie, who didn't start for the second straight game, led the Gophers with 21 points. Dan Coleman chipped in 12 points for Minnesota, which must host the second-ranked Buckeyes on Sunday and play at third-place Indiana next week. The Gophers have lost 11 of their last 12 games against Wisconsin.
Minnesota, as stingy on defense as it has been all season, just didn't have the depth, size or strength to keep up. The Badgers drew 23 fouls and went 21-for-31 from the free-throw line, against only 18 attempts for the Gophers. They made 14.
That's where Tucker was most influential. Though he missed seven of his 13 foul shots, his ability to cut hard for the ball, draw contact and distract the defense from focusing on his teammates makes Wisconsin a dangerous team even when the shots aren't falling.
"That's what Alando does. He draws attention, and makes plays," Ryan said.
Minnesota's timely long-range shooting made this a competitive game for about 35 minutes. Coleman's 3-pointer near the 5-minute mark cut the lead to 57-53, but the Gophers couldn't come closer. Wisconsin spent too much time at the line for that to happen.
The Gophers left a handful of layups short in the first half, squandering some of the few opportunities they had for open shots. The Badgers thrive on their pass-based swing offense, but they're always a tough halfcourt defensive team, too. Minnesota grabbed only two offensive rebounds before the break and rarely found room to cut and screen.
Wisconsin, though, needed nearly 18 minutes to take a lead bigger than three, when Tucker leaned in against Tollackson to finish a layup, draw a foul and convert a three-point play to make it 26-22. The Badgers shot only 28.6 percent from the floor before halftime.
"We've seen the best out of every team in the first half," Tucker said. "We just seem to outlast them."
By effectively recruiting the right players for his system, almost all of them from his home state or those surrounding it, Ryan has enhanced a program that has become Minnesota's envy.
Approaching the 10-year anniversary of their Final Four appearance, the Gophers have still not recovered from the academic fraud discovery and stiff NCAA penalties that followed. Seeing Taylor, a product of Minneapolis North High School, succeed in a red-and-white Wisconsin uniform stings a little more for Minnesota fans. Joe Krabbenhoft, from South Dakota, is another player contributing for the Badgers who was recruited hard by the Gophers.
But interim coach Jim Molinari, who took over on Nov. 30 when Dan Monson was forced to resign, insisted that his depleted, senior-less team is getting better despite all the defeats that are piling up.
"Great hearts are forged in great trouble," Molinari said.