The Big Ten has been the top basketball conference in the country for the past few seasons and the competition hasn’t gotten any easier, of course the ACC disagrees. The Big Ten schedule for every team is staked with elite opponents and brutal road trips. The Big Ten has dominated the Big Ten/ACC Challenge in recent years (3-0-1) after losing the first 10. There are many top teams in the Big Ten and Wisconsin’s journey through conference play is consistently difficult. There are five Big Ten teams currently ranked and the ACC also has five teams in top-25.*
*The rankings of each team are based on the USA Today Coaches Poll as the AP Top 25 has not been released yet. Ranked Big Ten teams, No. 2 Michigan State, No. 9 Michigan, No. 10 Ohio State, No. 21 Wisconsin and No. 24 Indiana (Iowa and Illinois also received votes).
Here is the most impressive, and I’m sure one of the most talked about, statistic in the Big Ten this season and for good reason. In the twelve years since Bo Ryan took over as head coach of the Badgers, Wisconsin has not finished worse than 4th in conference play, the longest such streak. It is a tall order to keep the streak alive but if anyone can do it, it’s Ryan and his consistent coaching style and dedication to defense. The Badgers will need plenty of defense to survive their ruthless Big Ten schedule and to accomplish their goal of winning the conference. The Badgers must develop their young front court during their difficult non-conference schedule and make up for the talent they lost to graduation. If their front court can develop and mesh with their already strong back court the Badgers could do some special things this year.
Here is a look at the Badgers’ Big Ten Schedule.
January 2nd: The Badgers open their Big Ten schedule with trip to Northwestern, which is led by a 6’5” mismatch-creating senior guard Drew Crawford. In the three weeks leading up to their match-up with the Wildcats the Badgers only play three games against three subpar teams; the Wildcats could be a wakeup call for the Badgers. Let’s hope the Badgers come out hot and start the Big Ten year 1-0.
January 5th and 8th: Next Bucky hosts Iowa and Illinois in consecutive games in front of the 17,230 Wisconsin faithful at the Kohl Center. Both Iowa and Illinois are looking to build on their successes of last season; both teams are a threat to upset the Badgers. Wisconsin is definitely hoping to be 3-0 at the conclusion of their first week of conference play if they want to compete for a Big Ten Championship.
January 14th, 18th and 22nd: This eight day stretch will define the Badgers’ season to date. First the Badgers travel to Bloomington to face Indiana in the hostile environment of Assembly Hall. Then they welcome a tough Michigan squad to Madison, slowing down the preseason All-American Mitch McGary is a must for a Badger victory. Wisconsin finishes this rough stretch by heading to “The Barn” to face their rival Minnesota. If the Badgers can win two of these three games they would certainly be ecstatic with the first three weeks of their season. At this point, the Badgers would love to be 5-1.
January 25th and 29th: The Badgers get a chance to catch their breath as they play Purdue and then Northwestern again. But, the game against Purdue is on the road, and Purdue always plays tough at the Mackey Arena. There will be no cakewalk for the Badgers in West Lafayette, Indiana. The Badgers then play Northwestern, this time in Madison for what should hopefully be a victory. The Badgers could be 7-1 after the first month of the season but of course there are no easy games in the Big Ten and there are upsets every week, thus nothing is guaranteed.
This is the point of the season where Wisconsin and its fans must ready themselves for experiencing the full-force of the nation’s best conference. Bucky is hoping to be sitting at 7-1 or 6-2 at the least heading into the next month of the season. If January is a 7/10 in strength-of-schedule then February is a 15/10.
February 1st through February 25th is as brutal of a stretch of schedule as there is in all of college basketball. We will look at the daunting month of February game by game.
February 1st: Wisconsin hosts the Ohio State Buckeyes for what will surely be a huge match-up. The Badgers will hope to continue their recent success against Ohio State by controlling the pace of the game in classic Wisconsin style. Ohio State beat the Badgers in the conference tournament a year ago, hopefully Bucky gets some revenge.
February 4th: The Badgers travel to Champaign to face Illinois for a big road game. Illinois’ Assembly Hall, now known as the State Farm Center, will most likely have its fans on “Orange Out” status and will definitely be a tough place for anyone to win.
February 9th: Bucky brings in Sparty for a game at the Kohl Center. Michigan State is ranked No. 2 in the USA Today Coaches Poll and the rivalry between MSU and UW has been boiling for over a decade. In the last couple years Michigan State has had Wisconsin’s number although Tom Izzo does still have a losing record to Bo Ryan… for now.
February 13: Wisconsin plays their bitter rival Minnesota for the second time of the season, this time east of the Mississippi River. The Golden Gophers will travel to face the Badgers in what could be a key game for both squads and certainly hard fought.
February 16: Bucky heads to Ann Arbor, where the Badgers have had a lot of success over the last ten years. But Michigan has another strong team and the Chrysler Center will be loud as Michigan fans will hope to defeat the team that knocked them out of the Big Ten Tournament a year ago. The Badgers went 2-0 against a Michigan team that went to the National Championship last year. This game will be the second time they play and will be billed as a marquee Big Ten match-up.
February 22: The Badgers travel to Iowa City to face the Hawkeyes. How good Iowa will be at this stage of the Big Ten Season is yet to be determined, although the same can be said about Wisconsin. Iowa will certainly want to get a big win over the Badgers to bolster their NCAA resume.
February 25: Wisconsin finishes its incredibly difficult month of February with its second match-up with the Hoosiers. This time Indiana will travel to Madison and the Grateful Red will definitely do its best to send the Hoosiers home losers. The Badgers will have to hold William Sheehey and the other playmakers in check to accomplish that.
This is the part of the schedule where the Badgers exhale, look back at the month that was, lick their wounds and prepare for the homestretch of the season. If the Badgers can go 4-3 during this stretch of February they will be in great shape. Going 4-3 could potentially leave them at 11-4 or 10-5 in conference play and that would be after the rough stretch of their schedule.
March 2nd, 5th and 9th: Wisconsin finishes with a three game stretch that could bring them the Big Ten Championship – if they survive their schedule up to this point. They should end with three victories over Penn State on the road, Purdue at home and Nebraska in Lincoln. All of these games could be potential losses because every game in the Big Ten is a challenge but Bucky is a better team than these three squads and Wisconsin should finish 3-0.
If the Badgers followed this route through their Big Ten schedule they would end the year either 14-4 or 13-5. I believe the winner of the Big Ten may have at least five losses and I also believe that the Badgers will lose at least one of the games they are “supposed” to win.
My prediction for Wisconsin’s record in conference play will be: 13-5
I believe that will be enough for at least a tie for first place in the Big Ten. The Big Ten is so deep and talented that teams like MSU, U of M, OSU, UW and IU will all beat up on each other leading to a conference record where five losses wins the league. This could be especially true when Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota and possibly even Purdue are factored in as quality teams that could win a few home games against the Big Ten’s “Top Five.”
That being said, anyone of the top five teams in the Big Ten could get incredibly hot and win the conference with only a few losses, I just do not see that happening.
Hey, the season hasn’t even began, we can daydream all we want. While we’re at it, why not start super-sophomore Sam Dekker’s campaign for Player of the Year in the Big Ten? Come mid-February we may need to adjust expectations and if so we will reflect and recalibrate our hopes then… but not yet.