Three short weeks ago, it looked like this would finally be the year Bo Ryan could not pull off another miracle and have his team vie for a Big Ten title.
But Wisconsin’s well-documented turnaround not only has the Badgers back in the rankings at No. 19/20, but also just a half-game out of first in an ever-competitive Big Ten title race. Winners of six in a row and relishing their seat at the No. 2 standing in what is widely considered the nation’s top league this season, this year’s turnaround is probably Ryan’s finest showing yet in his 11th season as head coach.
While UW appeared to have the pieces for a surprisingly strong squad early in the year, finding itself inside the top 10 shortly after Thanksgiving, the rough start to conference play seems to have served as a kind of wake-up call. The Badgers have looked like an entirely new team as of late, and though it’s hard to see a deep March Madness run in this year’s roster, they have a legitimate shot at taking home the NCAA’s most competitive conference crown.
That’s quite an impressive spot to be in considering that Wisconsin lost to Iowa at home a month ago to start the unforgiving streak. Again, that’s Iowa, in basketball, at the Kohl Center (and no, I still haven’t gotten over that).
After battling it out with perennial bottom-dweller Penn State Tuesday night, Wisconsin moved to 7-3 in conference play with a chance to take down Big Ten favorite and conference-leader Ohio State at home Saturday. In what should be a raucous home environment — something the Kohl Center has often lacked this year — there’s a solid chance Jordan Taylor will finally explode and take down the No. 3 team in the country.
Sure, on paper Jared Berggren is no match for the double-double machine known as Jared Sullinger. But he proved to be a solid defender against Indiana’s freshman sensation Cody Zeller and may be able to control the tremendously athletic Buckeye forward.
Then again, Wisconsin could just as easily struggle with its outside shooting and find itself in a deep hole against an Ohio State squad that recently manhandled Michigan, the same team that routed the Badgers by 18 in the midst of the aforementioned losing streak.
Critics will note that none of the six straight victories came against any of the Big Ten’s top trio (Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan), but it has been an impressive run regardless. It’s fair to toss aside victories over Nebraska and Penn State as games Wisconsin should have won, but defeating Purdue and Illinois on their respective home floors is no modest achievement.
The loss to Wisconsin remains the only defeat at Assembly Hall this season for Illinois, and Purdue has dropped only one other game — by two points to Michigan — in West Lafayette. These numbers all point to quality victories over two teams that will likely find themselves in the NCAA tournament come March.
Additionally, the Badgers haven’t won six games in a row since the 2007-08 season, the last time they arrived back in Madison with both the Big Ten regular season and conference tournament trophies. Not that I’m making any predictions — or am I?
Yet a higher spot in the Big Ten standings and happier fans aren’t the only positives to emerge from the rejuvenating streak.
Of equal importance is the confidence Ryan’s squad has gained by proving that even without the likes of Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil, it can still contend alongside the strongest Big Ten lineup in recent memory.
For a team that relies so heavily on outside shooting, a natural product of UW’s swing offense, confidence in mid-range jumpers and shots from long range will be key to keep up the winning style of late. Taylor, a preseason All-American, has failed to find a true rhythm all year and is currently hitting 39.1 percent of his shots from the floor and just 31.7 percent from beyond the arc.
But that hasn’t stopped him from firing off more shots, exactly the attitude this team must carry through the final stretch of conference play and into the all-important tournament.
The most interesting and promising part of this streak is that the shooting has been by no measure stellar. Shooting woes — which dismantled the Badgers during their disappointing start to Big Ten play — seem less noticeable, as the Badgers are currently hitting 41.4 percent of their shots during the triumphant streak. That number is nothing to scoff at, but it’s also noticeably lower than their .431 percentage on the year, a number that reflects those terrible shooting performances in late December and early January.
If UW is less accurate from the floor during this latest stretch and still racking up their biggest wins of the season, it’s clear that weak shooting doesn’t always correlate to defeat for this team.
Never was this clearer than in the ugly win over the Nittany Lions, when they managed just 17 points in the first half and limped to a 35.4 shooting percentage from the floor and 26.3 percent from 3-point range. However, UW found a way to leave State College with a victory, and it’s precisely that ability to come out on top when things aren’t running smoothly that could power them to the most unexpected of conference titles.
Let’s say Taylor regains last year’s form, and hits just a few more of those three-pointers with a defender right on top of him, and the ever-promising Mike Bruesewitz finds some consistency — suddenly the Badgers look like Big Ten champs. Taylor’s 18-point performance against Penn State, during which he showed flashes of last year’s brilliance, may have been the spark needed to get his team playing at its prime.
The Big Ten is, after all, a defense-first league — the combined scores of Illinois-Michigan State and Wisconsin-Penn State Tuesday night could be matched in a single ACC game — so don’t doubt the Badgers’ chances because of their sometimes anemic offense.
In a year in which the conference standings are cluttered and no squad has yet to pull away, it’s not always the most talented or even best team that finishes first. And this year, that team might just be Wisconsin.
Ian is a junior majoring in journalism. Do you think the Badgers have what it takes to bring home a Big Ten Title? Let him know at [email protected]