With Wednesday's win at Michigan, Wisconsin assured itself of at least third place in the Big Ten this season, continuing a 10-year streak of finishing fourth or better since Bo Ryan came to town. The Badgers have also unofficially earned a bye in the Big Ten Tournament.
Record-wise, the 2010-11 Badgers look like they will end up eerily similar to two other Ryan-coached squads of the past, those being the 2004-05 team and last season's bunch. Adam already compared the 2009-10 team to this year's team and when polled, B5Q readers gave a slight edge to last year's edition.
Is there anything to be learned about tournament potential from these two previous teams? Last year the Badgers never matched up well with Illinois, then drew a pair of under-seeded Cinderella types in the NCAAs, finishing 1-2 in postseason play. As the team six years ago proved, every good tourney run needs a little luck. Wisconsin avoided a No. 3 (Kansas) and No. 2 (UConn) seed that year thanks to upsets by Bucknell and N.C. State. This year's team will need some luck of its own, but it could happen.
Wisconsin went 25-9 overall in '04-05 with a starting five of Alando Tucker and four seniors: Mike Wilkinson, Zach Morley, Shariff Chambliss and Clayton Hanson. Not a single "four scholarship years and out" guy among them. Sophomore Kam Taylor was the only consistent contributor off the bench. Their claim to fame, however, was making a run to the Elite Eight and taking eventual national champion North Carolina to the limit. The Badgers finished 11-5 to place third in the Big Ten that season. Yet that team was only 5-6 on the road and 20-7 heading into the postseason. Sound familiar?
Assuming UW finishes 2-1 against Northwestern, Indiana and Ohio State, the Badgers will finish with no more than nine losses this season. I think it is reasonable to expect a 1-1 record in both the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments, putting Wisconsin at a final record of 25-9, 13-5 in the Big Ten. Getting overly optimistic for a change, UW could conceivably win the Big Ten tourney and make it to the Elite Eight to finish 29-8. How much would that shift perceptions of this team?
While the 2005 team had star power in Tucker and Wilkinson, today's Badgers match up pretty well with leaders Jordan Taylor and Jon Leuer. They also have Keaton Nankivil duplicating the big man shooting threat (Morley). Both teams were tenacious on the defensive glass, but the youngsters are even better on the offensive boards.
What the current team lacks is the plethora of shooters around its two stars. In fact, both Taylor and Leuer are perimeter-oriented themselves whereas 'Do and Wilk could get their buckets inside. Leuer has the potential to be a consistent back-to-the-basket threat, but we've seen him do a lot of floating around the 3-point line this year. And if Leuer is not posting up, no one else is filling that void. Without a more consistent presence on the block and no fourth shooter, it will be difficult for the '10-11 Badgers to duplicate the Elite Eight run.
Even so, UW is better inside this year than last year's team. You could argue that the improvement from Leuer, Taylor and Nankivil over the past year has made up for the loss of Trevon Hughes and Jason Bohannon, who were streaky shooters anyway. Offensive is not a problem for this year's squad, obviously.
Defense is what will limit the 2011 team. Defense is also what made the 2005 team great. But I won't dismiss this year's chances at making a run in March. Individual defensive efforts like the kind Ryan Evans gave late on E`Twaun Moore and Josh Gasser played in the final minutes on Darius Morris this week shows me that the supporting cast has it in them to be better. And that's why the ceiling on this year's team is higher than either 2005 or 2010.
Oh, and remember the old adage that you need multiple NBA talents on your team to win it all? Don't look now, but Wisconsin has two ...