Bo Ryan and Tom Crean exchanged a fly-by handshake with just a touch of bitterness, Mike Bruesewitz let out a primal howl as he walked into the victorious locker room and, just like that, the Wisconsin basketball team had reversed its fortunes.
These marked the first moments after Wisconsin shocked No. 2 Indiana to grab not only its most stunning victory since taking down undefeated Ohio State in 2011, but to also secure the top spot in the nation’s best college basketball conference. It was the type of performance that elicited national fanfare for Ryan as the annual ritual of talking about how you can never count Wisconsin out was reinstated. But as the praise grew softer, Badger fans had one question: Where the hell was this team, say, six weeks ago?
These winners, at one point, of seven-straight games and currently 4-1 in Big Ten play, including a 23-point shellacking of then-No. 12 Illinois, showed little resemblance to the one that crumbled against in-state rival Marquette Dec. 8. In case you have already pushed that game deep into the farthest reaches of your mind, let me remind you. Ryan Evans went a disastrous 1-of-9 from the free throw line, neither Traevon Jackson nor George Marshall appeared reliable long-term options manning the point and no Wisconsin player scored in double digits.
That team looked lost, stumbling to a 6-4 record with legitimate questions if this team would fail to make the NCAA tournament for the first time in Ryan’s 12-year tenure.
Questions resurfaced in an ugly 47-41 victory over Big Ten bottom-feeder Nebraska, the classic much-scarier-than-necessary early conference game against a weak opponent. But back-to-back wins over two squads with what most viewed as exponentially better chances at winning the conference crown have infused the Badgers with renewed poise.
This sudden rise all starts with the man who has taken over the reigns for Josh Gasser, the Ryan protégé whose preseason injury dealt this team perhaps an even bigger blow than it expected. After an early season battle with Marshall, Jackson is earning a majority of the minutes at point guard and has shown promising signs of development. His “ice-in-my-veins” pull-up jumper that fended off an Indiana surge in the game’s final minutes was the most obvious indication of that growth, as were the two free throws he sunk with 40 seconds left that all but sealed UW’s upset in Bloomington, Ind..
Jackson has turned into just what Ryan requires from his point guards — a sure hand who limits turnovers and can sink a few shots when called upon. The sophomore shot an efficient 47 percent from the field in those two games and finished with a career-high 14 points against the Illini, following it up with 11 more against the Hoosiers.
But perhaps the biggest sign of improvement comes not from numbers, but from body language, as Jackson finally looks comfortable directing this team during the past three games. He’s not Gasser, but he’s also proved himself a more than capable replacement — the single most essential key to Wisconsin’s sudden resurgence.
The changes don’t end there. While Jared Berggren continues to anchor Wisconsin’s offense on a nightly basis, he’s received a significant boost from Ryan Evans. Despite the fact that the circumference of the rim appears to shrink by several feet when he steps up to the free throw line, the forward has posted double-figures in every game since the winning streak began.
His free throw shooting is improving, if sluggishly, and he has also shown a keener eye for the shots he takes. After jacking up at least 14 shots in three consecutive games against UW-Milwaukee, Samford and Penn State, Evans has shown greater restraint recently. He had his most efficient night of the season in a 4-of-5 day against Illinois and went a steady 6-of-11 at Assembly Hall.
His shot selections remain puzzling at times, but as the Badgers’ second leading scorer (11.5 points per game) and leading rebounder (7.8 rebounds per game), Evans remains the primary scoring threat when Berggren can’t find space inside.
The final piece of the puzzle that finally snapped into place against the Hoosiers is Sam Dekker. The deceptively athletic 6-foot-7 freshman — the program’s biggest impact freshman since Alando Tucker — has provided much-needed athleticism and energy off the bench. Wisconsin’s fourth-leading scorer at 9.4 points per game, Dekker’s youth is indicative of his style on the floor.
Reaching double figures against Illinois and Indiana, he is the X-factor who can erupt for 19 points, as he did early in the year against Arkansas. He is the type of talent that does not grace a Ryan-coached team often and will develop into a more dangerous threat as he gains experience.
Piece these players together and the 4-1 mark in the Big Ten seems more the inevitable result of this collection of talent discovering their designated roles rather than an overachieving group shocking the conference elite.
With these pieces in place, just how far can this team go? A 15th consecutive NCAA tournament appearance is now little more than an afterthought. Once considered among the first few teams left out of the bubble after deflating losses to Virginia and Marquette, barring disaster the Badgers will be dancing come March. But in a division boasting two of the best teams in the nation in Michigan and Indiana, a Big Ten title is a few steps out of reach.
Its confidence restored and its season-defining win now in tow, the Wisconsin basketball team has its swagger back and it looks like it’s here to stay entering the season’s most critical and challenging stretch. It’s just a shame this identity crisis lasted as long as it did.
Ian is a senior majoring in journalism. Want to share your thoughts on the quality of Ryan’s team? Email him at [email protected] or reach out on Twitter @imccue.