Badger Bits: Can the 'Wisconsin Way' win it all?

Revenue-earning UW sports occupy an enviable place among the best in the nation at the moment. The football team is in a good position to make a second straight Rose Bowl. Basketball is ranked in the top 15 and should make a 14th straight NCAA Tournament appearance. Both squads feature upperclassmen at key positions and unheralded recruits molded by coaching staffs to fit like precise, interchangeable cogs in an ever-turning machine.

Hockey is the obvious exception, hanging out in the "also-ran" section of this week's USCHO Top 20 rankings and so far headed for a mediocre season. The mass defection of upper-level underclassmen after the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons has contributed greatly to the predicament in which the hockey team finds itself, and as Andy Baggot writes has led to a shift in recruiting philosophy by head coach Mikes Eaves towards something more resembling the football/basketball model.

"It changed several years ago, probably after our first championship when we started to see guys disappear," Eaves said, referring to the 14 underclassmen UW has lost to the pros since 2004. "We talked a lot about whether guys are going to be here two years, three years or if they're four-year guys.

"We wanted to have balance. If you have too many two-year guys you find yourself in a big hole. It's something that, the way the pro game is going, our mindfulness about how we're (adding prospects) has increased."

Hockey has always been able to attract relatively higher caliber talent than football or basketball. The sport has six national championships compared to a combined one for the other two and the local talent base is much richer, so it makes sense. Football and basketball don't attract high-turnover talent, a big reason why they haven't experienced the volatile swing in expectations that hockey must deal with. Of course, they haven't experienced the same brushes with greatness that the 2006 and 2010 hockey teams did either, winning an NCAA title and placing runner-up, respectively. Which brings me back to the outrage Michael Hunt attempted to spark following the Ohio State loss.

At the time Hunt wrote a piece questioning whether Bret Bielema should continue to lead the football team. I thought his argument was ludicrous for the same reason you don't throw babies out with your bath water. But I get the underlying frustration, which is that the football program seems to have hit a hard ceiling, always managing to be "good" while never great. It's no stretch to extend the same argument to basketball, which has exited in the first three rounds of the NCAA Tournament for six straight seasons.

The "Wisconsin Way" has brought football and basketball consistent success for long enough now that national titles seem like the only logical step forward for either program. According to the only resources we have to evaluate high school talent, it's remarkable that the Badgers ever factor into the discussion, however. Crunch the numbers and you'll find that the average rank of the recruiting classes comprising this year's football team is between 41st and 42nd in the nation according to Rivals.com. Basketball doesn't have a four-star recruit on the roster. Recruiting services aren't gospel, but they are useful. Top teams tend to haul in the best players, that's the truth. Wisconsin, for all its success, rarely comes across the game-changing athletes that make up the best teams in the nation. 

We'd all like to see football and basketball compete for titles the same way hockey does, and would probably trade some of the consistency at both programs to do it. That doesn't change the fact that Wisconsin is a large, cold, talent-sparse state, however. The upshot is that the Badgers are upgrading their talent if, again, you put any stock in arbitrary recruiting rankings. Wisconsin's haul of 2012 freshman for football, while small, ranks ninth in the country by average star rating, and nothing more needs to be said about what Sam Dekker potentially brings to the hardwood. The Badgers are building the tradition it takes to grab players outside of their immediate geography. For now, being the model of unparalleled consistency will have to do.

Thursday's Links:

George Marshall has opted to redshirt this year. #dreamchasin

Your should-be daily reminder to love Jake Byrne.

Manasseh Garner still sidelined, can't catch a break.

David Gilbert is headed for a redshirt, giving him two more seasons of eligibility after this year.

No surprise that Russell Wilson is a Walter Camp finalist. No love for Montee Ball, however.

Illinois' offense has fallen off the radar over the last four games, and Ron Zook is grumpy about it. Once again, EDSBS delivers.

Hail To The Orange breaks down the Illini's loss to Michigan last week.

Illinois' pass rush tops the conference with 32 sacks on the season.

Off Tackle Empire breaks down the races for the Hayes-Schembechler trophy, awarded to the coach of the year. Bielema is tabbed as the 3-2 favorite.

USA Today releases its college football coaching salary database for 2006-2011, and our annual outrage returns like the salmon of Capistrano. Bielema takes fourth place in the B1G behind Kirk Ferentz, Brady Hoke and Bo Pelini.

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