In its 81-58 victory Sunday at Welsh-Ryan Arena, No. 4 Wisconsin offered an example of the kind of team Northwestern aspires to be and of the kind of basketball it wants to play.
The Badgers (14-1, 2-0 Big Ten) are contenders for an NCAA championship and start two players — Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker, provided he skips his senior season — who should be first-round picks in the NBA draft in June.
The Wildcats (10-5, 1-1) have their sights on a more modest goal: their first trip to the NCAA tournament. That seemed far off when they left the floor after the game, but at least they got an idea about how they can accomplish that in the coming years.
‘‘It’s a process, and you’ve got to play in games like this to learn what it takes,’’ NU coach Chris Collins said. ‘‘This is a great game for my young guys to play in.’’
Defensively, Wisconsin’s swarming, shot-contesting team has earned coach Bo Ryan and his program national acclaim. The Badgers held the Wildcats to 39.3 percent shooting overall and to 28.6 percent from three-point range. NU missed shots in the paint it typically makes.
The numbers suggest the young Wildcats were affected by nerves. After all, for the five NU freshmen who played, it was their first game against an opponent ranked in the top five.
The Wildcats beat Wisconsin, which fell a missed jumper short of playing in the NCAA title game in 2014, last season. But this NU team is far younger than the Wildcats’ squad last season.
NU’s players experienced something new against the Badgers, but none of them will use that as an excuse. After watching the tape, it will be hard to find a Wildcat who thinks he played well.
There were flashes of winning basketball, though. Sophomore Nathan Taphorn had a highlight-grabbing dunk in the paint, and redshirt junior Tre Demps had team highs of 17 points, six rebounds and four assists.
The difference was that Wisconsin did the things that win games more consistently. Of course, that’s the mark of a team filled with upperclassmen. Inconsistency is the hallmark of a young team, and it’s something NU must learn to shake.
Even though the Wildcats’ performance wasn’t one of their best, they would be smart to remember it. The longer they do, the closer they’ll be to reaching their ultimate goal.
‘‘We’ve got to get old and we’ve got to get experienced,’’ Collins said. ‘‘You’ve got to go out there and you’ve got to play and you’ve got to figure it out to play this level of competition.’’