Just two games into conference play (against the projected two worst teams in the Big Ten) the Badgers have won close games. Maybe that’s a testament to how tough this league is top-to-bottom, but I think it’s more of an indicator of how far Bo Ryan’s team is from where it needs to be.
I was never sold on Josh Gasser as an offensive player — although he could have made some big jumps in the offseason — but there’s one thing the Badgers sorely lack this season that may end up killing them during this upcoming tough stretch that Gasser brought to the table, and that's a veteran ball handler. I’ve seen Traevon Jackson and George Marshall both grow this season, but there’s no leader, no proven veteran at the point that can orchestrate this Wisconsin offense in the way that will be necessary to beat some of the better teams in the conference.
This team has heart and great defense, something every Ryan-coached team seems to have, but it doesn’t have a player (minus Dekker) who can create his own shot, or others, off the dribble. Ryan Evans can’t make squat from the charity stripe (like seemingly everyone else on the roster right now) and the Badgers offense is about as explosive as wet dynamite.
So, as the Badgers enter the proverbial make-or-break part of their conference schedule (six of their next seven opponents are ranked and nine of their next 11, with the only two not both coming against a very solid Iowa Hawkeye squad) without an offensive identity, expect mixed results.
I see Wisconsin winning two or three of their next five. Illinois is going to come in very jacked up after being man-handled by a surprisingly physical Minnesota team and Wisconsin has to travel to Bloomington to play the most athletic/dangerous squad in the conference in Indiana. Then it’s a trip to Iowa City to play the Hawkeyes, a site where the Badgers traditionally win but have struggled the past several years. After that it’s two home games against Michigan State and Minnesota.
So, with that grim picture being painted, here are my evaluations of the Badgers’ roster up to this point of the season.
Traevon Jackson — "Trey" surprised me with his jump from last year to now. He’s put on muscle and his physique really reminds me of a young Jordan Taylor. I think Trey won the job because of his defense and toughness, he’s shown some physical, rough-em-up D the past few games and also a knack for the big shot (hit a dagger on a pull-up in the final minutes against Nebraska). However, he needs to work on being more aggressive off the dribble. When he gets inside he has great vision and has shown a good finish, but he’s still just a sophomore getting used to being the "guy" running the offense. I think there’s a tremendous upside with Jackson and he’ll get better with every game, but as of now, he’s only so-so. If Wisconsin wants to go anywhere in tournament play, Jackson will have to be a better offensive creator/scorer.
Ben Brust — Let me be clear about Ben, he makes the most out of what he has as a player. He’s rarely going to beat you off the dribble, he’s not going to blow you away with his athleticism at the guard spot (although he is athletic), but he’s smart. He’ll float around the arc and fill the spot if there’s dribble penetration, he’ll run off the screen. But what has really impressed me about Brust this season is his hustle. In a season where he had to step up in the wake of Gasser's injury, Brust found a new aspect to his game by crashing the boards like a mad man early in the nonconference schedule.
Defensively, I’ve been impressed with the job he’s done so far against some of the better guards Wisconsin has faced. But still, the biggest hole in his game is his inability to create his shot on a consistent basis, although when he gets by his man he shows a knack for finding the open man. Brust can still make a three from around half-court and his range makes him an important offensive option, but he needs dribble penetration from a point guard in this offense to get more open, comfortable looks that will result to bigger scoring performances.
Mike Bruesewitz — The glue guy. He’s had the same role/designation since he was playing in his first year and not much has changed. Like everyone else on a Bo Ryan team, Bruiser will hustle and play physical with you. Defensively, I think he’s a bit slow-footed for a starting forward but he still manages to do well enough. He gets rebounds (especially tipping balls out to the wing on offensive boards), he’ll dive after balls, but offensively, he’s a bit of a black hole. He’ll make the occasional three, he can make a nice post-up move from time to time, but he can’t create his own shot. He’s only reportedly at 80% after recovering from his concussion, so I can’t make a full grade on him this season.
Ryan Evans — The best athlete on the team, but one of the most frustrating players to watch. Plays great defense about 75% of the time but gets caught up on screens and can get manhandled when put up against a good post player. His awful free throw shooting (an atrocious 36% on the season) makes him an offensive liability, especially when the best aspect of his game is the dribble-drive to the inside, which seems to consistently draw the foul. His 15-footer is still inconsistent, which makes it easier for opposing coaches to sag on him as part of their game plan. Still, Evans remains the Badgers’ best rebounder (14 against Nebraska) and a player who can occasionally catch fire with his shot. So far Evans still hasn’t lived up to expectations for his senior year, but it’s a long season and he can still figure out his shot from the field and the line.
Jared Berggren — I don’t think the Badgers would have won five games at this point of the season if they didn’t have one of the most underrated big men in the country in their starting five. The defensive presence the 6-foot-10 center brings for the Badgers results in blocks and countless opponent’s shots altered because of their fear of the swat from Berggren. Offensively, while it was Jordan Taylor that constantly drew double teams a season ago, this year it’s been Berggren against overmatched opponents.
He’s extremely athletic for his size, one of the few centers in the country who can put the ball on the floor and drive against a defender and has the ability to stretch the floor with his ability to pull-up from deep. Sometimes against physical posts he can struggle with fouls and dictating the block position of the man he’s guarding, but Berggren is still the Badgers’ best player. His tenacity to block the shot can result in him getting out of position for rebounds, allowing opponents to feast on the offensive boards (the Creighton game comes to mind) but that's just a minor problem in a sea of positives the senior brings to his squad.
At times I think the Badgers have gotten away from getting him touches in the post and that will have to change playing against physical teams with length in the conference, especially Minnesota, Ohio State and Michigan State. If Wisconsin wants to make the NCAA tournament, every offensive position should feature at least one catch in the post or arc by Berggren
Sam Dekker — One of the few Badgers that can legitimately create his own shot, Dekker can truly do it all, although he still remains a freshman. He’s gotten better every game, even though lately his three-point ball hasn’t been falling as consistently. He can post up, he can shoot from outside, he can shoot off the dribble, he can penetrate, he can pass ... yeah, that pretty much says it all.
He’s going to be the best player at Wisconsin since Devin Harris, but he has plenty to work on.
Defensively, Dekker has been getting better with his close outs and feel for Big Ten play, but the main reason why Dekker hasn’t started (besides Bo Ryan notoriously rarely starting freshmen) is his defense not being consistent. Can make a freshman mistake like getting out of control on his attack, throwing a bad pass etc. but all are extremely correctable and more a result of adjustment to the college game rather than a shortcoming.
Watch out for Dekker, he’s going to be a great one, maybe even by the end of the season.
George Marshall — Young and inexperienced, Marshall is still one of the young guys getting used to his role for Wisconsin. Most of his shots have been threes this year (49 of 66 shots have been from deep), but I still think Marshall could be an extremely talented penetrating point guard for the Badgers down the road. Athletically, I think it’s easy to see that Marshall is probably the most gifted guard on the roster when it comes to footwork, but his comfort level handling the ball isn't there just yet.
Jordan Taylor had high praise for him when Marshall guarded him in his redshirt year for the scout team, so you know that potential I'm alluding to is there. I think we’ll see Marshall continue to become more comfortable in his role throughout this season, but I’ll be surprised if he makes the big impact Wisconsin was hoping he would after losing Josh Gasser for the season.
Frank Kaminsky — I think Frank is still adjusting to his new, slimmer physique. He definitely hasn’t been jaw-dropping in his sophomore campaign (4.9 ppg, 1.5 rpg), but he does give the Badgers depth to take Berggren off the floor when needed. I think Kaminsky is more athletic than most people take him for, he’s just another developing player on this roster. He needs to continue to gain a post-game inside, it’s already known he can hit the three.
Zak Showalter — I think Zak has done outstanding in what should have been his redshirt season. Since Gasser’s injury shot him into the rotation, Showalter has shown tenacity, tough-nosed defense and disgusting hops around the basket, giving the Badgers around 10 minutes a game on the floor. Offensively, he’ll need to continue to improve in his ball-handling among other things, but I like what I see from Showalter on the defensive end. Something that struck me about him when he was just a junior at Germantown High School was his incredible toughness and I’ve seen that when he’s been on the floor. He’s going to be that next, great Badger defender at the guard position, but it might be a year or two before he’s at the level that gets him big minutes.