Just six games in, the Wisconsin basketball team is finally getting the national respect it usually lacks at this point in the year. There is only one problem: They are not that good.
Sure, the Badgers are 6-0 and have taken down each of their opponents by no less than 17 points, but they also have not faced any true contenders. While Ben Brust and Jared Berggren lead Wisconsin in scoring (certainly a surprise for what was expected to be a one-man show featuring Jordan Taylor), analysts and the media are simply giving the Badgers too much credit for what they have achieved.
This team is definitely solid, with plenty of scoring options and a strong defense, but Bo Ryan’s squad is just now starting to play opponents that give them the chance to earn their No. 7/9 ranking. That stretch starts Wednesday when UW travels to North Carolina to take on the Tar Heels in their always challenging home environment. Though few expect the Badgers to pull off a stunning upset at the Dean Smith Center – excluding Doug Gottlieb, who boldly picked Wisconsin to win – this game could serve as a measuring stick for just how far this team can go come March.
Wisconsin has pulled off big upsets in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge before, including an unforgettable victory over No. 5 Duke in a deafening Kohl Center in 2009, but don’t expect another statement win over the ACC from the Badgers this year. The Tar Heels are on an entirely different level than the Badgers in terms of their depth and talent, and the fact that they are ranked just two spots ahead of the Badgers in the coaches’ poll shows that college basketball coaches are way too high on Wisconsin.
A convincing victory over Brigham Young Saturday was UW’s first impressive win of the year, but it did not justify the Badgers moving up four spots from their already favorable No. 11 rank. With another tough in-state matchup with Marquette this weekend, it should be much clearer a week from now what the Grateful Red can expect out of their beloved team this year.
At this point in the year, UW fans are usually calling out ESPN for not giving Ryan’s team any respect and not praising a team bound for another NCAA Tournament, but for some reason, this season is different. Instead of whining about a lack of respect, most fans have come away with a sense of shock after glancing over the college basketball rankings every week. The tsunami of respect may be a product of Taylor’s rise to national prominence toward the end of the 2010-11 season and the preseason hype surrounding the senior point guard this year, but there is no clear reason why Wisconsin has suddenly jumped up the ranks.
It is understandable why the media and fans see Taylor and Co. as the second-best team in the Big Ten behind the Jared Sullinger-powered Ohio State Buckeyes, as the Badgers are shooting the lights out early on. With a team 49.4 percent field goal percentage and an impressive 47.2 percentage from behind the three-point arc (third nationally), Wisconsin looks good on paper.
Toss in a 1.9 assist-to-turnover ratio and it sounds like Taylor’s supporting cast has what it takes for a historic season. But when four of the first six wins come against the likes of Kennesaw State, Colgate, Wofford and the Missouri-Kansas City (not exactly perennial powerhouses), those numbers no longer fly off the stat sheet.
The scoring has been balanced with Taylor taking a backseat while he can and allowing the likes of Berggren, Brust and even forward Ryan Evans to step up, but don’t expect it to last. Brust threw down an impressive 21 points against BYU and 17 in a blowout win over Colgate, but he won’t be the Badgers’ top scorer for long. Similarly, Berggren looked great in a 21-point, eight-for-nine shooting night against Colgate, but these are in no way Big Ten caliber defenses or players.
Brust is a great sixth man to provide some energy and give sophomore guard Josh Gasser a rest, but his big numbers probably won’t last. Berggren, the Badgers’ most formidable inside threat, is still developing and will struggle to slow down inside powers like Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger. Though the 2011-12 edition of Wisconsin basketball is deeper and more well-rounded than many expected, their lack of a dominant inside presence could have fans tuning into Badger games for a regular edition of the Jordan Taylor show.
UW has held its own on the other side of the ball, limiting their opponents to 39.2 points per game and a 30.5 percent field goal percentage. However, five of the six offenses the Badgers have faced early on rank 160th or lower nationally in field goal percentage. Only the BYU Cougars, who average a stellar 51.1 percent from the field and slipped to 43 percent in their Chicago Invitational game with Wisconsin, presents a threatening offensive attack.
There is no question that the Badgers have looked surprisingly strong after losing their top scorer in Jon Leuer and key role players in Keaton Nankivil and Tim Jarmusz, but they are not the seventh-best team in the county. With two matchups against teams ranked in the top 20 looming in the next week, the numbers will slide and the weaknesses of this team will become clear.
Maybe Taylor will lead an Ohio State-esque 35-point miracle to put head coach Roy Williams and the Carolina Blue to shame, but don’t count on it.
It’s nice to get the respect fans always covet for Ryan’s often overlooked squads, but the high hopes will fade, and soon.
Ian is a junior majoring in journalism. Think the Badgers’ deserve their lofty no. 7 ranking? Or will they show their true worth in Chapel Hill against the No. 5 Tar Heels Wednesday? Let him know by emailing [email protected] or tweet him @imccue.