The Wisconsin Badgers are just a team. Nothing more, nothing less.
They seem to prove it just about every game: Wisconsin is made of a group of players, each of them playing their role within the Wisconsin system; a system so unsexy that it is only marginally recognized when run at its absolute best. That form of “best” comes around, dominates and then it strays away, replaced by something much more horrific – to the tune of 29.4 percent shooting and 17 turnovers last week at Michigan State.
And this season, that trend has been evermore readily apparent. They’re good and then they’re not. They’re great and then they’re poor. The polarization is rather stunning.
Their best was nowhere to be found when Florida tromped UW by 18 points in November. Then their best showed up during a seven-game winning streak underlined by a victory over then-No. 2 Indiana on the road. Just seven weeks later, their best was lost again, as Purdue ruined Senior Day and the aforementioned game against Michigan State ended in a 15-point drubbing.
And now it seems as though their best is coming back. Back-to-back victories in the conference tournament over top-10 teams in Michigan and Indiana have sprung Wisconsin and its best back into the conversation, as a team.
With just one five-star player on their team, one might call them a bunch of misfits. They’re not misfits, they all belong. As individuals, they just might not belong anywhere else.
Instead of being misfits, they actually fit well – but only when brought together – and Bo Ryan becomes the puzzle master. But enough has been written and said about Bo Ryan after he won his third Big Ten Coach of the Year award just this week. Though it wouldn’t run true in the game of chess, in the case of the 2013 Wisconsin team, the pawns are just as powerful as the leader directing them.
Ben Brust has become a better defender in 2013. Sam Dekker has provided an offensive spark from the bench all season long, a freshman fitting into the framework of what Wisconsin had in place when he arrived.
And what does a team of mere pieces do when one of them is lost for the season with a torn ACL? Sub in the next best fit, simply out of necessity. And to no surprise, it has tended to work. Traveon Jackson was that sub, and though he’s has been far from perfect, he is the lead guard of a 23-win basketball team.
However, they are also a 10-loss basketball team.
Throughout the season, every Badgers player has displayed their lacking an essential skill, blatant enough for televisions to receive warranted screaming all over the Dairy State.
For Dekker, it’s his defense. For senior forward Ryan Evans, clearly his free throw shooting. For Mike Bruesewitz, it’s consistency from three-point range. When these issues arise at the same time, UW’s best is a grave afterthought.
But for the traits that each of them lack, their assimilation of teammates tend to make up for any deficiencies.
Following likely the biggest reversal of fortunes against Michigan Friday, hotel room chatter prompted the question: who is Wisconsin’s best player?
Senior center Jared Berggren was the first name dropped. It was quickly followed by other opinions stating Evans or Dekker. Brust’s consistency throughout his junior season eventually tossed himself into the mix.
The real answer is Wisconsin doesn’t have a best player. A go-to, get-us-out-of-trouble Badger doesn’t exist. This trumps them at times (think first half Friday against Michigan) and vaults them at others (think second half against Michigan).
It also opens the floor for each player to play a vital role, increasing the relative size of their contributing piece of the puzzle on most nights and decreasing it on others.
Against Michigan, Frank Kaminsky provided a scoring burst in the final minutes while Berggren sat on the bench in foul trouble. Against Indiana, Evans was the underlying star but George Marshall made back-to-back three-pointers in the second half in place for Jackson. Then Dekker separated the deadlocked teams with a personal 7-0 scoring run. At any point in time, any Badger can essentially “carry” the team.
“Every night, it’s almost someone different … that’s the sign of a good team,” Dekker said. “Everyone has their own mini-spurts that give us energy and give us momentum.
“[If you] just make a collective effort to buy in and trust things that are going on … you’re going to be better because you’ll have five guys with the same common goal.”
That common goal, as the Badgers approach their game Sunday, is to win the Big Ten tournament. As a team, they keep inching closer. As a team, it’s working now, but following the pattern for this team, it might not be next week.
Rarely do all the pieces fit perfectly together, all at once, a surefire victory. However, on the same tune, rarely do all the pieces leave a messy trail, all at once, a surefire loss.
Will Wisconsin advance to the Elite 8? They’re a good enough team. Will they get bounced in the first round? They’re an average enough assembly of talent. I don’t have a clue, because nobody really does.