Just when most fans were ready to leave the 2017-18 Wisconsin Badgers basketball season for dead, they have suddenly come to life. Or have they?
A 71-61 win over Indiana to restart Big Ten play was certainly promising, as it extended UW’s win streak to five games and puts them at 2-1 in Big Ten as the team heads on a three-game road trip over the next week.
In a season in which the Badgers have already lost seven games, being on the plus side of the win-loss column is certainly a good way to start of January. After the win over Indiana there was one word that was buzzing around the Badgers locker room — confidence.
"It's a huge win for us just to get our confidence rolling"
Make it five straight wins
On, WWWWWisconsin pic.twitter.com/03f5nRH4SR
— Wisconsin Basketball (@BadgerMBB) January 3, 2018
It’s good to hear that from players like Brad Davison, because his production is certainly going to be important the rest of the way. But, does that alone mean the Badgers are going to be making a run in the Big Ten and towards an NCAA tournament berth?
There is some reason to believe that UW can make that run, but also a ton of reasons to be cautious about this team being able to battle with some of the better teams in the Big Ten going forward. Let’s take a look at the pro’s and con’s if you will.
Reasons to believe they’ve turned the corner:
Confidence can be a season-changing thing, even if that confidence boost comes from beating some really bad non-conference foes and one of the Big Ten’s lower division teams this year. As we noted above, this team is playing with a ton of confidence as of late and with a young team sometimes that is all that is needed to turn the corner.
Some of that confidence comes from players who may not be getting major minutes stepping up and taking advantage of playing time. T.J. Schlundt has done that and Aleem Ford continues to grow in to his role and become more confident in his game as the season goes along. To that point, Ford has scored no fewer than nine points and is averaging a healthy 11.0 points per game, while shooting 57.1 percent from the field (16-28).
Few players in the Big Ten mean as much to his team than Happ means to the Badgers. It can be seen in his recent play, as he’s been the catalyst for UW’s turnaround as of late. His performance in the win against Indiana was incredible. He had 28 points on 11 of 17 shooting to go along with 9 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals and 2 blocks.
Few players in the country can do that once, but Happ does it consistently. While it would be ideal to not have to rely on him, the reality is that his skill set is so rare he has to be the focal point of the offense. Whether it’s his court vision, his strength down low or ability to make the big pass to open teammates, Happ is playing at a much better level today than he did against Marquette. It’s no wonder Wisconsin is winning a lot as of late.
Reason’s to not believe they’ve turned the corner:
Defense is still spotty
There’s no running away from the fact that the 2017-18 team isn’t going to play good defense at all. It’s strange to see and say, but the reality is UW . It’s a major problem because that means the Badgers have to rely on their offense to win games. That a major problem to say the least, as Wisconsin comes in to this weekend’s games ranked No. 7 in scoring defense (65.1 points per game) and dead last in scoring offense (70.3 points per game).
Of course, those numbers are a bit skewed by non-conference play, but a deeper dive in to the Badgers schedule shows a troubling trend against quality competition. Wisconsin has played seven games against teams from major conferences (Ohio State and Penn State included) and they gave up an average of 71.4 points per game. Take out the anomaly of the low-scoring affair against Virginia and the average jumps to 76.0 points per game. Wisconsin can’t do that against Big Ten opponents and hope to outscore them to win, it hasn’t worked in the past and won’t work with this inconsistent offense.
Western Kentucky (68th RPI, 79th KenPom) is the highest rated win of the bunch and that was a one-point barn burner. The other four opponents paint a brutal picture. Chicago State is No. 297 in RPI and No. 345 in KenPom, Green Bay is No. 302 and No. 293 respectively, UMass-Lowell is No. 303 and No. 299 respectively and finally Indiana comes in at No. 143 and No. 93 at this point in the season.
That’s not exactly the cream of the crop and UW should have easily won three of those four games against teams not names Western Kentucky. So, should we really be impressed by this current win streak?
Personally, this feels like a team that is turning the corner. Does that mean they are going to compete for a Big Ten regular season title? No.
What it does mean is that I can see this team competing at a much higher level than most of us were thinking after watching Marquette humiliate the Badgers just about a month ago. If you would’ve told me this team losses Brevin Pritzl prior to a Big Ten game and they would find a way to win I would’ve thought you crazy. Instead, they got plenty of production from other places and a brilliant day from Ethan Happ.
The confidence is brimming, and in the years covering this sport, the one thing I know is that a confident team is a dangerous one come January and beyond.
What this team needed was a role like this, even if the competition level hasn’t been great. Learn what it feels like to play at this level and apply that against better competition. I’m betting the Badgers get closer to making the NCAA tournament than anyone thought they would in December.
Let’s see if they can get some positive results on the three-game swing against Rutgers, Nebraska and No. 20 Purdue. That will be the real test and a 2-1 road trip would go a long way towards solidifying a turnaround to the season.