Author: Harris Jacobs
The college basketball season is closing in on conference tournaments and eventually March Madness. The Wisconsin Badgers men’s basketball team is having a better season than most people would have expected. Let’s take a look at how this season is shaping up and how they stand in the larger picture.
A Battle with Michigan
Most fans will remember Sunday’s Wisconsin basketball game against the Michigan Wolverines for Michigan head coach Juwan Howard’s inexcusable behavior in the postgame handshake line. At the end of the game, when the game was out of reach for the Wolverines, Howard got upset when Wisconsin coach Greg Gard called a timeout after he had taken his starters out, and ended up striking Wisconsin assistant Joe Krabbenhoft in the face in the handshake line.
In spite of the postgame antics, the Badgers nevertheless picked up an important 77-63 victory against the slumping Wolverines. The Badgers won Sunday’s game in a typical Wisconsin fashion as they didn’t have an amazing first half, yet turned up the defensive intensity in the second half, which led to much easier baskets.
Johnny Davis showed once again why he is a projected lottery pick in the 2022 NBA draft putting in 25 points on 11/17 shooting. All five Badger starters scored double-digit points as Steven Crowl scored 11 and Brad Davison, Tyler Wahl and Chucky Hepburn each had 10.
In the Hunt For First Place In The Big Ten
With this home win against the Wolverines, the Badgers are now 12-4 in the Big Ten, tied for second place with the Illinois Fighting Illini a half-game behind the Purdue Boilermakers in the conference standings. It is possible for the Badgers to leapfrog get the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten tournament.
Wisconsin’s toughest game remaining is against Purdue at home and the other three games are all winnable at Minnesota, at Rutgers, and at home vs Nebraska. While Illinois holds the head-to-head tiebreaker against the Badgers, the Illini could slip up down the stretch against Ohio State or a red-hot Iowa.
As the regular season begins to wind down, head coach Greg Gard has done a great job of positioning his team to get a high seed in both the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments. His team plays disciplined; the Badgers only commit 8.5 turnovers per game, which is the lowest in the nation. This has allowed them to have the 4th most Quad 1 wins in America, something that will sit well with the NCAA selection committee.
How Far Can This Team Really Go?
In spite of these impressive accolades, I do not believe the Badgers are a legitimate Final Four threat. For starters, their depth is a huge issue. In some of the Badgers’ biggest wins this season (Purdue, Ohio State, and Michigan State), no bench player scored more than six points. On the season, no bench player averages more than Lorne Bowman’s mere three points per game.
When the Badgers played without Davis against Providence and without Wahl in their first game against Michigan State, they lost both games as Davis and Wahl’s absences loomed large. Fortunately, up until this point, Wisconsin has avoided the long-term injury bug, which has given them a chance to win every game they’ve played in. However, as the calendar turns towards March, the competition will only get stronger.
When the inevitable adversity hits in March, from either foul trouble to injuries to playing a red-hot underdog, who can the Badgers turn to off the bench? What happens if Davis or Wahl get two quick fouls and Davison struggles from the three-point line? While some young players such as Lorne Bowman and Ben Carlson have the potential to contribute in the future, they haven’t shown anything this season to prove that they could provide a postseason spark, which has been vital to the success of previous championship-winning teams.
Think about Duke’s Grayson Allen’s performance against Wisconsin in the 2015 championship as a true freshman. Or Villanova’s Donte DiVincenzo’s 31 point explosion against Michigan in the 2019 National Championship. Or even Baylor’s Mark Vital’s 11 rebound effort in last season’s title game. No, I’m not saying that having studs of bench players is a requirement in order to go deep in March. Yet the Badgers don’t have any sort of offensive weapon that comes off the bench. They can’t just rely on Johnny Davis’ heroics to save them.
Does my grim outlook mean that the Badgers are in for a first-round loss in the NCAA Tournament? Absolutely not. These Badgers never give in defensively and play a very disciplined style of basketball. With veteran Davison’s NCAA tournament experience and a superstar like Davis, this team is more than capable of making it to the Sweet 16. However, once they have to go up against teams on the level of Auburn, Arizona, and Gonzaga, I believe that Wisconsin’s lack of depth will be the difference.
Gard Still Deserves His Credit
Let’s not allow Wisconsin’s issues off the bench to cloud over the fact that Greg Gard has done a tremendous job coaching this team. In a year where Wisconsin was predicted to finish 10th in the Big Ten in the preseason polls, the Badgers have shattered everyone’s expectations. Davis, after a good-not-great freshman season, has emerged as a superstar. Wahl, after averaging only five points per game a year ago, has become a reliable force in the post. True freshman Hepburn has played great defense all year long and is beginning to prove that he can make big shots.
My point is that regardless of what happens in the Big Dance, Greg Gard deserves heaps of praise for keeping Wisconsin Basketball relevant.