Statistics are the lifeblood of sports. They prompt the debates, the arguments, the lists and rankings. Sheer numbers define what is good, what is poor, what is great and extraordinary. They fuel the expectations by which they are eventually judged.
Well, the expectations for Bobbie Kelsey’s women’s basketball team were fairly optimistic entering what was her second season as head coach. Senior guard Taylor Wurtz was ready to polish an already shiny career at the Kohl Center and junior guard Morgan Paige was quickly becoming a scoring menace.
Between the role players expected to chip in, any further chinks in the armor were set to be filled by a pair of intriguing freshmen guards, Nicole Bauman and Dakota Whyte.
But somehow, things didn’t work out as expected. A quick glance at the women’s basketball record from this season and you’ll find some rather disappointing numbers—seemingly unfulfilled expectations.
The Badgers jumped out to a 7-3 record but saw a turn for the worse. Multiple five-game losing streaks and a 3-13 Big Ten season led Wisconsin to a second-to-last place finish in the conference and an 11-18 regular season.
Rest assured, it’s not all that bad. In fact, there is an underlying notion about this season that is more impressive than any set of numbers that define a team’s success.
In light of Bo Ryan’s newly minted Big Ten Coach of the Year award — for a well deserved 2013 campaign — Kelsey’s coaching job was also very impressive, even if the standings and lacking postseason bid tend to mask it.
For starters, the aforementioned Wurtz was only able to play the first five games of the season, forced to the bench with a nagging back injury. Before the calendar turned to 2013, Wurtz had elected for a medical redshirt; the Badgers’ best player was sidelined, very similar to junior guard Josh Gasser and his torn ACL.
Only that’s not all. Sophomore forward AnnMarie Brown, although not a starter, was many times the first player off the bench for Kelsey. Before the Badgers had reached conference play, Brown tore her ACL, thinning the bench even further. Imagine if the men’s team lost sixth man Sam Dekker.
If that wasn’t enough, the Badgers lost a pair of guards to transfers in the fall as freshman guard Makailah Dyer and sophomore guard Lindsay Smith found seemingly greener pastures elsewhere. Imagine guards junior George Marshall and freshman Zak Showalter leaving before the season really even took off. It was awful-tasting icing on the cake for Kelsey.
The deck was stacked against the coach pretty much from the start. Injuries and transfers had left the cupboard pretty bare, so much that any victory was a pleasant surprise. That doesn’t mean the second-year leader isn’t deserving of some credit for how the season played out under her watch, however.
Her colleagues were well aware. Many Big Ten coaches brought their teams to battle against Kelsey’s Badgers and many walked away with a victory. Many also noted how impressed they were with their adversary, often working with just seven players at their disposal.
I attended four post-game conferences, and each of the four opposing coaches started the conference with praise for Kelsey’s work on limited resources.
The reason they were raving was because Kelsey had her team in position to win almost every single game in which they took the floor.
Of Wisconsin’s 19 losses this season, 12 came by single digits. Another loss came by 10; another by 11. They lost a heartbreaker in double overtime on the road at Ohio State. The repetition of dissatisfaction was likely more than enough to make Kelsey lose her mind, but she resisted.
At those same press conferences where she was praised, Kelsey ended each of them with the resounding idea that the team just had to keep fighting.
Her leadership wasn’t producing victories, but it was really only a matter of time.
The constant struggles of blown leads and second half debacles were nowhere near Madison when the then-No. 8 Penn State Lady Lions entered the Kohl Center in late January. They left with their first and only conference loss of the regular season as Kelsey’s Badgers rushed the court in a victory that wiped the stinging losses far from mind.
Until junior guard Ben Brust played superman against Michigan, the Penn State victory was the best game by a Wisconsin team in the Kohl Center this season. It’s a shame only 3,602 fans were on hand to witness it.
But it didn’t seem like a fluke that Wisconsin was in position to win. They were facing a team that had already pummeled them by 44. Penn State was highly favored, but aside from the Badgers’ own pride, I tend to believe their lasting bits of motivation came from the spearhead of their sideline.
And while their season ended Friday in the Big Ten tournament, Kelsey’s record added another loss and her two-year career remained in a bland state. The recognition she had received from her opposing coaches fell on the few sets of ears that were on hand to witness.
But just because success doesn’t ring the doorbell and let itself inside doesn’t mean it’s not walking (maybe even jogging) up the driveway.
There is plenty of promise returning on the court for Wisconsin. In 2013, Kelsey proved there is also plenty of promise on the sidelines.
Although the numbers may not have arrived yet, Kelsey (as well as her many assistant coaches) was barely short of fantastic in leading Wisconsin through a less-than-fantastic season.
Don’t be surprised if the expectations she encountered at the beginning of 2013 are met and eclipsed by the end of 2014.