It’s about damn time.
That was my first thought after checking out the Wisconsin men’s basketball nonconference season for the upcoming season. The cupcakes from the likes of the Southland Conference (Southeastern Louisiana, anyone?) are still present, but the Badgers’ pre-Big Ten schedule looks remarkably strong when compared to those of years past.
Those schools that you can’t believe actually exist, the ones Wisconsin pays big money to travel to Madison and get decimated on the Kohl Center floor, have not disappeared. But they no longer dominate the schedule as in years past.
Highlighted by matchups with Florida, Cornell, Virginia and Creighton, Bo Ryan finally isn’t backing down. And the nonconference slate will finally offer legitimate preparation for a Big Ten conference that has over recent years molded into a basketball powerhouse.
In Jordan Taylor’s senior year, the 2011-12 season, Wisconsin’s first five opponents finished with a combined record of 47-110, a 43 percent winning percentage. Among them were such gems as Kennesaw State (3-28) and Colgate (8-22) and not a single one played in last year’s NCAA tournament.
This year? A combined record of 95-65, with two teams that made it past the first round of the 2012 tournament and an Elite Eight squad in Florida that narrowly missed out on a spot in the Final Four. And a Cornell team that when it last took part in March Madness in 2010, knocked out the Badgers in the second round on the way to shooting a ridiculous 61 percent from the floor.
The ACC/Big Ten Challenge and the annual in-state battle with Big East power Marquette usually stand among the few watchable games in the early part of the season. Aside from the occasional game with BYU or UNLV, the living room couch was usually the best spot to catch an embarrassing nonconference schedule. But, could it be that the Badgers realized such padding of the schedule only hurt them when March rolled around?
A program that has failed to make it past the Sweet 16 since 2005 and always flames out in either the second or third round just took a big step forward. It may have taken the better part of a decade, but scheduling ACC, SEC and Pac-12 teams should help with the perennial postseason disappointments.
The impact may not be immediate, especially in a year where Ryan lost his most productive guard of the last two seasons, who often single-handedly carried UW: Jordan Taylor. A 15th-consecutive appearance in the NCAA tournament is preordained, but this team does not appear to have the makings for a deep postseason run.
Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina – the teams that seem to hold a reserved seat in the Final Four each year – understand that quality matchups mean postseason success. So maybe Barry Alvarez and co. finally realized that one game in Chapel Hill or a grind-it-out game against Notre Dame doesn’t make up for a complete lack of competition in the rest of the nonconference schedule.
The best early season lineup in years – which also includes games with Arizona State/Arkansas at the Las Vegas Invitational and California – will leave the Badgers with a few more losses at season’s end. It would take a heroic effort to upset the Gators, who are returning three starters from the team that ran all the way to the Elite Eight, in Gainesville.
It may hurt their placement in the tournament, but whatever is lost in seeding will be more than made up for in experience. There’s no true value in racking up wins by 40-point margins (twice the case in 2011-12) when they do nothing more than cushion the team’s record. Good luck explaining how that 77-31 drubbing of Missouri-Kansas City helped us in a heartbreaking single-point loss to Syracuse in the Sweet 16.
The Big Ten once again looks loaded with talent, a group of contenders led by Indiana’s Cody Zeller and Michigan’s Trey Burke. The Hoosiers, after finally returning to relevance last season, will eye a national title this year. Such competition makes it all the more important that the Badgers play nationally relevant teams before the real season – the all-important conference season – begins.
It may help the Badgers avoid the damaging early conference disappointments like last year’s seven-point loss to Iowa at home.
These eye-catching matchups will also help the program gain exposure and build a national brand, an area in which it has been unable to keep pace with the football program.
It’s no secret that the Madison hardwood is not a hotbed for the top high school prospects, and much of that is often blamed on the pass-first, ego-deflating swing offense. But primetime spots on ESPN and suiting up against nationally-recognized foes from outside the Big Ten can only help the program grow.
So relish the exciting lineup, Badger fans. Games against Cornell, Virgnia and Cal warrant packing the Kohl Center, a strange feeling when it’s November or December and the opposing team doesn’t have “Marquette” emblazoned across its chest.
Now if only the football program would glance across the athletic department walls and follow suit. But for now, let’s just take it one step at a time.
And hope the basketball program keeps this up. Barry deserves a pat on the back.
Ian is a senior majoring in journalism. Are you also a fan of the strong nonconference slate? Or do you like beating up on the little guys? Let him know on Twitter @imccue or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.