The Bo Ryan-led Badgers are no stranger to tournaments. Since 2001 when Ryan took over, his squad has qualified for eight consecutive NCAA Tournaments. His teams have experienced some success, reaching the Elite Eight in 2005 and the Sweet Sixteen in 2008.
But never have any of those teams played in the Maui Invitational.
Arguably the most competitive early-season tournament the NCAA has to offer, tonight the Badgers will face Arizona in what will be the team’s first serious challenge of the year.
The field, which consists of Gonzaga, Cincinnati, Colorado, Maryland, Vanderbilt and Chaminade in addition to Arizona and Wisconsin, includes teams from six major conferences and four teams that went to the NCAA Tournament last season.
Obviously, it’s early in the season, perhaps too early to truly evaluate the Badgers’ performance thus far. Forwards Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil have shown glimpses of brilliance, and Trevon Hughes has exhibited improvement in his decision-making abilities, albeit against far weaker opponents.
But now in such a tough field, the Badgers could prove they are better than many believe they are, or perhaps, just as weak as the media predicted.
It is no secret Bo’s squads have been perennially underrated in preseason rankings. Two years ago, when the Badgers won the Big Ten outright for the first time since 2003, they were predicted to finish third in the conference, and ended up losing only two games to one conference opponent all year.
Now, Wisconsin has a chance to impress a national audience, and if the Badgers’ past early-season tournament success is any indication, this could be an opportunity UW won’t want to pass up.
Last year in another difficult Paradise Jam Tournament, Wisconsin defeated San Diego and Iona before falling to a far superior UConn squad. But in the Maui field this year, while nearly every team has a solid core that could propel it to a high finish, there isn’t a squad like Connecticut’s a year ago.
Simply put, the Badgers have a chance to prove their worth against a very beatable set of teams. Unlike last year when a trip to the tournament championship meant an imminent loss to the Huskies, Wisconsin must like its chances against a team like Maryland or Vanderbilt.
But really, there’s more to this tournament than just a chance at winning in a team of solid competitors. The Maui Invitational, unlike nearly every other early-season tournament in the country, is essentially a shorter replica of what the Badgers will hope to be a part of in March. Every game will be a challenge, and the difficulty of playing on a neutral court against quality opponents is a dream come true for Ryan and the Badgers.
Looking at the rest of UW’s nonconference schedule, things simply don’t get any easier. As always, the Badgers will face Marquette, and of course, Duke is coming to the Kohl Center next week.
So what does a strong performance in this tournament mean for the Badgers? Well, aside from the respect it could gain from a couple wins on national television, simply the experience of being in a tournament that resembles the NCAA Tournament can give the Badgers confidence they are able to compete in a field like that at the end of the season.
But a bad performance wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world either. If you ask any of the players who endured the Badgers’ six-game losing streak last season, they would tell you while it was perhaps the toughest stretch of the season, the ability to recover and qualify for the NCAA Tournament was more rewarding as a result.
This tournament is no different. Even though the Badgers could lose at most three consecutive games in Maui, they would still have to reassess their current situation and come to the realization that someone, whether it be Leuer, Hughes or Nankivil, must step up to perform well in the Big Ten and throughout the rest of the team’s nonconference schedule.
For now, though, the Badgers should feel privileged to be selected to play in the Maui Invitational. Their appearance, whether it turn out bad or good, is simply a nod to the team’s recent success. Hopefully for UW, it will use its experiences from this tournament to help the team when faced with similar challenges at the end of the season.
Jonah is a junior majoring in journalism and Hebrew and Semitic studies. Excited for the Badgers’ appearance in the Maui Invitational? Send your thoughts to [email protected]