This past weekend, I got the chance to see my cousin and his seventh grade basketball team play in the Minnesota state tournament. Of the many observations that I came away with from the games I saw — besides the fact that I wish I could play basketball with some semblance of athleticism — the one that really stood out to me was that whether a team is made up of a ragtag group of 13-year-olds or a highly skilled group of college players, the formula for winning in the postseason doesn’t change.
It takes the right ingredients to succeed. While a team can pull out a few fluky wins in a row with inconsistent play, only one loss ends a season, and inconsistent teams end up watching the championship games from their couches.
Unfortunately, my cousin’s team fell into the latter category as it fell short in its championship bid. After seeing Wisconsin falter against Nebraska Sunday, I’m convinced the Badgers find themselves in the same category, although the Wisconsin players are a few years older.
In the beginning stages of the season all was well with the Badgers. They were on the way to a school-record 16-game winning streak, and everyone, even the college basketball analysts, was lauding Wisconsin’s play and dreaming up this grand idea that it could find itself in the Final Four come March Madness. Then the praise train skidded off the tracks and into a barren wasteland as the Badgers lost five of the next six games and dropped out of the rankings.
But with the flip of a switch following that landslide from the top, Wisconsin vaulted itself right back into No. 1 seed talk with an eight-game winning streak. However, with the loss to the Cornhuskers, the Badgers fell to No. 12 in the AP Top 25. A top seed looks like a stretch now, although The Badger Herald’s very own Spencer Smith is convinced Wisconsin can still make the top line.
I’m not here to argue what seed Wisconsin should be in the tournament, but whatever number goes along with the nomenclature come this weekend, the Badgers will still be one of the top seeds in the tournament. Just don’t expect them to go very far.
It might seem harsh to say that after the Badgers put together quite the run during the regular season having only lost six games heading into their first Big Ten Tournament game Friday. But despite what will end up being the fewest losses since the 2007-2008 season (five), Wisconsin has gotten quite lucky to this point for how inconsistent it has been to have lost only six games.
Wisconsin could well have lost more games than it has to this point; for example, the Wild West shootout, which was UW’s 103-85 victory over North Dakota earlier in the year, was a win that without Frank Kaminsky’s 43 points could have been a loss. But it wasn’t just that game that has escalated my early onset of heart disease. Plenty of other contests this season, with a few more wrong turns, could have brought about opposite results.
The problem with this year’s Badgers’ squad is that the inconsistencies aren’t limited to just one area. Sure, every team will experience good shooting nights and poor shooting nights every now and then, but Wisconsin hasn’t just been limited to shooting problems. In fact, looking at the stats, offense should be the least of its worries with four players who average double digit scoring and six who average eight or more points per game. Still, with an offense that Bo Ryan would have gladly welcomed in the past, Wisconsin finds itself time and again in extended sequences without a basket as happened in Sunday’s game.
Even when the offense has fared well though, the Badgers have still found ways to lose games in other ways this season, most notably with defense or lack thereof. If you look into the past you’ll notice how Wisconsin has routinely led or been right near the top of the Big Ten, and the nation for that matter, in scoring defense. It’s certainly nothing to complain about, but this year the Badgers have fallen well off the mark they are usually at under Ryan. Wisconsin ranks only fourth best in the Big Ten in scoring defense and 42nd in the country in the category, the lowest mark since the 2005-2006 season and the second most points per game they have ever given up in Ryan’s tenure (64.2 points per game).
Some people might attribute the higher number of points given up to the fact that Wisconsin has played more up-tempo this year with more speed and more scoring options. That does factor in somewhat, but outside of that mediocre excuse, the numbers tell a story about a Wisconsin defense that just hasn’t been good this year.
For starters, the Badgers have allowed opponents to shoot 43.1 percent from the field this year, hardly a good mark. In the last 11 straight games they haven’t held a single opponent under 40 percent shooting either. The offense, as has been seen firsthand multiple times, isn’t going to put up 105 points every night. So to rely on a lackluster defense throughout the postseason is asking a lot. Going outside of the numbers, Wisconsin’s defense has also had a hard time controlling penetration into the lane, reflected in the fact that it has given up 30 or more points in the paint 15 times, just one game under half the contests this season.
Mix that in with a free-throw shooting enterprise that has had some trouble hitting the freebies, especially in the latter stages of games, and any number of tragic flaws have brought the Badgers their defeats.
Sure, it’s been a great year for basketball, and I’m not discrediting what has been accomplished this season. But if you’re looking for old reliable come tournament time, you may want to cast your gaze on a team other than Wisconsin.
Dan is a sophomore and has not yet declared his major.
Do you agree with his presumptions that Wisconsin will fall short in the postseason, or do you think the Badgers are going to defy the odds and win it all? Let Dan know your thoughts by sending him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by shooting him a tweet @DanCoco7.