‘They are who we thought they were’

Yup, this post is long overdue. I began thinking about it in November, and here we are, halfway through January. With a HUGE game on tap for tonight (Tues. 1/15), I figured I should get on with it.

Yeah, I have procrastinated — but with good reason. You see, in order for me to be able to write intelligibly and accurately about a subject, I first must understand said subject. And that hasn’t been an easy thing to do with this year’s University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team.

As with any team who loses one of its best leaders to graduation and another to injury, the Badgers have spent much of the first half of the season trying to overcome those losses and to establish their own identity. It’s been a bumpy road at times, which also helps explain my foot-dragging in writing this post.

For most squads, a 9-4 record during non-conference play is a great way to head into the conference season. But UW fans — especially during Coach Bo Ryan’s tenure — have become accustomed to both a great record and stellar play. While the Badgers probably should have come out of the NC portion of the schedule at 12-1 (the lone loss being a firm butt-kicking at the hands of the Florida Gators in November), cold shooting, sloppy defensive play and settling into a rotation caused a couple hiccups. As fans have been known to do, many began to (yet again) question Ryan’s recruiting, his system, his starting lineup, the depth of the bench and everything in-between.

Now, if there is one thing I believe in — even more than I “trust The Mustache” — is that you should never, ever underestimate a Bo Ryan-coached team. Sure, you can complain all you want that Ryan’s teams are “boring” to watch, that he only wins because of his “system” and that he only recruits players that fit his “system” — none of which are true, except for the fact that he indeed runs a “system,” just like every other head basketball coach in the nation.

Some UW fans also complain year-in and year-out that the ceiling for Ryan’s era is the Sweet 16 and never a Final Four or national championship. While those are the goals of every player, coach, administrator and fan, very few programs can reasonably expect those lofty achievements every season. All I know is that, with the exception of a very few seasons, the UW basketball program was horrible throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s. Since Ryan took the helm in 2001, this is what fans have witnessed. Not too shabby.

So, onto this year’s team, which sits 12-4 overall and 3-0 in Big Ten play, tied for first place with No. 2-ranked Indiana. Are they the team who clobbered then No.12-ranked Illinois last Saturday? Or are they the (relatively) discombobulated mess that lost at home to an unranked Virginia squad? Will they continue with the monster dunks, alley-oops and throwing down Sheboygan Slams (trademark pending 🙂 ), or will they revert to hurling up bricks like they did in their first two B1G contests?

Before I attempt to answer such existential questions, let’s look at what this team has, and what it lacks. On the plus side, UW has a senior-dominated front court, led by one of the conference’s best big men. The trio of Ryan Evans, Mike Bruesewitz and the aforementioned Jared Berggren has seen it all and will need to carry the team on their collective back if the team. “Bruiser” has had a tough first half of the season, injury-wise, but seems to be rounding into shape

Also in the starting lineup is junior guard Ben Brust, whose game has grown from a spot-up three-point shooter to more of an all-around scoring threat. He’s still shooting well from outside, but his ability to drive to the hoop and get open in the lane is something that last year’s team lacked.

The Badgers are also fortunate enough to have one of the B1G’s top freshman on the roster: Sam Dekker (for an introduction, see the dunks linked above or watch him win a high school state title). Keeping in mind that he is young and still learning the college game, this kid is legit. He’s already providing a spark off the bench as the team’s sixth man, and I look forward to watching him anchor UW’s starting five over the next three seasons. This kid has NBA small forward written all over him.

Now, the things the team isn’t doing so well: handling the ball and making free throws. By now everyone knows that Josh Gasser’s knee injury derailed Coach Ryan’s best-laid plans for the 1 spot. Redshirt freshman George Marshall and sophomore Traevon Jackson already figured to see some minutes off the bench behind Gasser, but instead were thrust into the spotlight quicker than most had hoped. Marshall was the starting PG over the first quarter of a season, but was erratic both with his shot and ball-handling. Jackson replaced him in the starting lineup and didn’t immediately impress, but has shown improvement and had a college-high 14 points in last weekend’s win over Illinois. Both guards need to keep developing if UW is to make it beyond the first weekend of the NCAA tournament this year.

And then there’s the not-so-minor problem of free-throw shooting. I’m not breaking any news here, but it has always been, and remains to be a very important factor in the college game. And, quite honestly, the Badgers really suck at it as a team this year. Through their first 15 games, UW ranked No. 325 (out of 345) IN THE NATION in team free-thrown percentage. It’s tough to win games when you’re clanking the easy ones of the back iron. If the Badgers don’t fix this problem — and fast — it will quickly mask their other flaws and be their undoing.

As always, it’s a long season and anything can happen. The Big Ten is as tough as it has been in a long, long time so wins will be tough to come by. The good news is that when two good teams face off, one must lose. So as long as UW keeps their heads above water, they can compete with the so-called big boys (i.e. Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State).