Record: (24-4, 14-2 Big Ten)
Key Wins: @Texas, Indiana, @Indiana, Michigan State.
Key Losses: @Purdue, Purdue, @Duke, Marquette
Key Stat: 54.9. That is how many points per game the Badgers allow – best in the nation.
Key Numbers: RPI: 12; SOS: 42; NSOS: 61; Vs. Top 50: 4-4
Biggest Strengths: For years, coach Bo Ryan has used pieces of various shapes and sizes to fit into his system. This year has been no different. While the Badgers run the same swing offense they have for years, the ability for each player on the court to score from each position on the floor seems to be greater this season (Think Brian Butch’s bank-shot to win at Indiana). That helps Wisconsin’s other biggest strength – balance. Four players average around 10 ppg, led by Butch (12.6). At any moment in any game, one of the “big four” – Butch, Trevon Hughes, Marcus Landry and Michael Flowers – could be counted on to hit a big shot. Even others – Joe Krabbenhoft and Jason Bohannon – have shown the ability to be heroes.
With a straight face, no one can argue Wisconsin isn’t battle tested. Despite playing without Hughes – who was Wisconsin’s scorer at the time – the Badgers beat the Longhorns in Austin. Other than beating Texas, Wisconsin’s only other notable victories both came against Indiana (one at home and one on the road). But two tough games against the Baby Boilers, an early-season contest against Duke in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and a battle with in-state rival Marquette round out an above-average schedule. Wisconsin might not win every game it plays from here on out, but it is a safe bet to assume the Badgers will be in it ‘til the end.
Biggest Weaknesses: There is no go-to scorer. In its first five conference games this season, Wisconsin had five different players lead the team in scoring. That type of balance might be nice during the season, but, in big games, it can be problematic. Alando Tucker was the do-all player for the Badgers last season en route to Wisconsin’s first 30-win season and a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. This season, Wisconsin’s “Big Two” would be Brian Butch and Trevon Hughes, who are averaging 12.4 and 12.3 points per game, respectively. However, on any given day, Hughes’ jumper might not be falling and Butch might regress to his early-season woes behind the 3-point line. No one is saying Wisconsin cannot win playing unselfishly with a different player carrying the load each night. It is just harder to have championship-level success playing that way.
While Turnovers aren’t a problem for the entire Wisconsin team, Wisconsin’s top three scorers all average more turnovers per game than assists. For a team that plays a methodical tempo, giving away possessions, which undoubtedly will happen when your key players have ball control problems, turnovers can destroy Wisconsin’s chances of winning a ball game.
Most Important Player: Brian Butch. “The Polar Bear,” as nicknamed by famed analyst and former UCLA coach Steve Lavin, has come alive this season and is the heartbeat of this squad. Butch leads the team in points and rebounds (6.8) and is shooting 31.6 percent from 3-point range. He’s not a back-to-the-basket big man but that is exactly why he is a perfect fit for Wisconsin’s offense. The nature of the swing offense is that, at some point on a possession, Wisconsin’s bigs are outside the 3-point line while its guards are in the post. This, depending on another team’s defense, will create a variety of mismatches. Against Michigan State, for example, the Spartans liked to keep their center in the post as to utilize his shot-blocking skills. For Wisconsin, that meant Butch, when beyond the arc, would be guarded by a defender giving up nearly half a foot. Butch took advantage by hitting four 3-pointers and the Badgers rolled to victory. But Butch isn’t just a finesse player. He will fight for rebounds and, when he does get the ball in the post, will make a strong move to the hoop and look to score. He’s a pedestrian 68.4 percent free throw shooter but, in the clutch, that number seems to jump closer to 80 percent.
X-Factor: Michael Flowers. One would think a man with a pansy last name wouldn’t amount to much. Someone forgot to tell that to the man with a last name that makes horticulturalists proud. Flowers is undeniably Wisconsin’s best defender and, when things are going well on defense, his offense seems to blossom. Against the Spartans, Flowers stuck to Drew Neitzel like fly paper as the Spartan guard attempted to create space by running around screen after screen. Forty minutes later, Flowers not only had held Neitzel to 1-for-10 shooting and just three points, but he also had scored nine points, dished out three assists and added a block and a steal. Sometimes the one piece a team is missing in the NCAA Tournament is that lock-down defender. Wisconsin has theirs, and his offense (9.8 ppg) isn’t too shabby either.
Might Lose When…the turnover bug hits. For a team that just set a school record with one turnover against Michigan State, it is hard to picture Wisconsin, with its deliberate offense, struggle with ball control. But against Duke earlier this season, the Badgers were run out of Cameron Indoor Stadium, 82-58, thanks in large part to coughing up the ball 18 times. Two games later, Wisconsin had another 18 turnovers. The result – a five-point home loss to Marquette. That magic number 18 popped up again when Wisconsin lost at home, 72-67, to Purdue. (In a road loss to Purdue, Wisconsin committed just 13 turnovers). It is safe to say that, when Wisconsin becomes careless with the ball or an opposing team has quick hands, the Badgers might be in trouble.
Might Surprise You With… its unsung heroes. If you haven’t heard of Joe Krabbenhoft, this paragraph is for you. Joe Krabbenhoft is a 6-foot-7 guard/forward from Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The junior scores 7.1 points and grabs 6.5 rebounds and dishes out 2.8 assists per game. What doesn’t show up in the stat sheet is the kids’ grit. Krabbenhoft is just one of the many Badgers that seemingly gets to all the loose balls. The same thing can be said for possible rebounds. One ESPN analyst said he was considering naming his dog Krabbenhoft, exemplifying how this kid embodies the heart and soul of college basketball.
Predicted finish in the NCAA’s: Sweet Sixteen. Could this Badger team be better than last year’s version? The question seems crazy but, in all reality, the NCAA Tournament will be the final judge. Wisconsin’s four losses all came to marquee teams so it isn’t as if Wisconsin has any “bad” losses. Like all four of the Big Ten’s best, the Sweet 16 should be the floor and a deep run in the tournament should be a goal. With a defense that allows less than 55 points per game, even the best teams in the country will have a tough time scoring against the Badgers. Of all of the Big Ten’s teams, Wisconsin seems to have all the right pieces – efficient offense, dominant defense, solid big men, great guard play, great coach – to make the Final Four. If there is one Big Ten team you want to put in the Final Four this season, Wisconsin is your safest bet. Notice I said safest, not safe.
Editor’s Note: Can someone please get Bo Ryan some PR? The man can flat-out coach. When you think of the Big Ten, you think of Michigan State, Indiana, Illinois, and now Ohio State thanks to Conley and Oden. But Wisconsin almost never comes to mind as one of the consistent contenders. Guess what–the Badgers have won or shared the Big Ten regular-season title three times in the last seven years! Though he never seems to have enough raw talent to quite reach the Final Four, the swing offense is always hard enough to prepare for that the Badgers will certainly avoid a first-round upset. UNLV last year was a) NOT a #7 seed and b) perhaps the most difficult matchup Wisconsin could have faced of any second-round team. Travon Hughes has stepped into his leading scorer role nicely, and Brian Butch has come on towards the end of the season. Wisconsin’s defense will keep it in games, even against athletic or hot-shooting competition.