The Wisconsin Badgers need to turn things around to make the NCAA Tournament
After advancing to consecutive Final Fours, the Wisconsin Badgers have themselves in unfamiliar territory with a trip to the NCAA tournament very much in jeopardy.
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A month into the college basketball season, Wisconsin has lost home stunners to Western Illinois and UW-Milwuakee with a few forgivable losses against Georgetown, Oklahoma and Marquette. The Badgers took care of Siena, North Dakota and Prairie View A&M and picked up good wins against VCU, Syracuse and Temple.
Overall, Wisconsin carries a 6-5 record with Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and UW-Green Bay remaining on the non-conference schedule before the Big Ten slate begins on Dec. 29.
Replacing two first-round NBA draft picks has been more difficult than expected for the Badgers, who also lost five of their top seven scorers from last season.
Wisconsin came into the year with a preseason ranking of No. 17, so why would the AP and Coaches’ Polls rank the Badgers so high given all they have lost? It’s because of the Bo Ryan factor. Since Ryan took over in the 2001-02 season, Wisconsin has finished in the top four of the Big Ten standings and made the NCAA tournament each year. No matter who has stepped in to the lineup under Ryan, it just worked, which coined the phrase, “Death. Taxes. Bo Ryan.”
The reality is that the Badgers have never had to replace this type of massive overhaul of talent, and the inexperience on the roster has been tough to overcome in the opening month of the year.
Wisconsin scheduled a pretty tough non-conference slate, and it would have been nice to have added another signature win or simply beaten the teams the Badgers should have beat. Just one game above .500 11 games into the season, the Badgers have work to do with little margin for error, and the final two non-conference games are close to must wins. If the Badgers fall to Green Bay, getting swept by the state of Wisconsin on its home floor would be tough to deal with for Badger fans.
Wisconsin’s lineup is talented enough to be a tournament team, but the Badgers have struggled to put it all together during games. The inconsistency has a lot to do with the inexperience to the roster that has eight freshmen, tied for the most in college basketball.
The Badgers came into the year expecting to have the luxury of big man Andy Van Vliet, who was ruled ineligible by the NCAA early in the season, and sharp-shooting guard Brevin Pritzl, who has been sidelined with a foot injury and might redshirt his freshman year. Not that Van Vliet and Pritzl would make the Badgers one of the best teams in the country, but their presence on the floor would add some much-needed depth to this team.
Nigel Hayes leads Wisconsin in scoring, averaging 16.3 points per game, but his 4-for-18 shooting performance on Saturday dropped his field-goal percentage down to 36.2 percent, which is the lowest on the team among players that see regular minutes. He is the go-to guy, but Wisconsin needs to get other players involved so Hayes can get back to the efficiency that we saw in his first two seasons.
Ethan Happ will need to make a bigger impact as the Badgers’ third scorer, which would take some of the pressure off of Hayes and Bronson Koenig. Happ has had a solid start to the season, averaging 10.8 points and 8.5 rebounds per game, shooting 51.7 percent from the floor with four double-doubles. He leads Wisconsin in rebounding and blocks. Happ’s biggest issues include turnovers and staying on the floor because of foul trouble. The Badgers need his presence inside with his rebounding ability and scoring around the basket. If the Badgers are a tournament team, they will need Happ on the floor.
Early on in the non-conference portion of college basketball, the Big Ten appears to be a top-heavy conference with three teams in the top 10, and Wisconsin plays all three of them twice in the Big Ten schedule. The Badgers have home-and-homes with No. 1 Michigan State, No. 6 Maryland and No. 9 Purdue.
It’s still early, but Wisconsin does not have much time just two weeks away from the start of the Big Ten season. If the Badgers struggle to produce more consistent performances, they could find themselves left out of the field on Selection Sunday for the first time since 1998.
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