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The long layoff is over. It's time for Wisconsin basketball to get back on the right track, starting with a hopefully entertaining Badgers-Panthers matchup at the Kohl Center on Saturday.
Trying to pass the time during Wisconsin's 10-day hoops layoff for final exams, I listened to a few minutes of Wednesday's Marquette-Green Bay game on the radio -- of course cheering for the plucky Phoenix. Even though Green Bay was winning, I tuned out, assuming the inevitable would happen. The Golden Eagles would come back and win, I thought, reasserting the natural pecking order in state collegiate basketball.
But Green Bay didn't go away, winning an ugly 49-47 home contest to shock Marquette. That's the same Green Bay team that Wisconsin just beat by 11 points. So if my transitive skills are up to snuff, that would mean Wisconsin is better than Marquette, right? And we all know how that turned out in real life.
The game was another bit of evidence that the state of Division I basketball in Wisconsin is a mess right now. You cannot identify the one dominant team in the state right now. None of the four teams -- Wisconsin, Marquette, Green Bay and Milwaukee -- are shoo-in tournament teams at this point. A year after posting a composite 88-47 (.652) record, the four D-1 programs collectively sport a 18-23 (.439) mark so far this season.
We'll have to wait and see how Marquette responds to this latest setback, and you are hopefully familiar with the Badgers' early season struggles. But the one team truly dragging down that state winning percentage is UW-Milwaukee, which Wisconsin hosts Saturday night inside the Kohl Center at 8:15 p.m.
Milwaukee head coach Rob Jeter was Bo Ryan's star pupil and right-hand man for many years, including a four-year stint as associate head coach at Wisconsin. Jeter's first head coaching gig has had its ups and downs over these eight years -- including two Horizon League titles five years apart. The start of this season is certainly one of low points. Escaping DII UW-Parkside by a point in an exhibition was one early indication that this season would be rough.
What makes its struggles more frustrating is that Milwaukee has really become a destination school for the top prep talent in the state. Ten of its 15 players hail from Wisconsin, compared to just four of 14 Badgers. Heck, Madison Edgewood's own Austin Arians got his first start in a loss to Tennessee Tech a week ago. If Jeter cannot win with home-grown talent, what does that say about the depth of high school basketball talent in the state?
Truth is, the Panthers are simply dreadful at shooting the basketball. Their 41.2% effective field goal percentage is among the worst in the country. The team shoots only 26.6% on threes and is constantly turning the ball over. Milwaukee graduated three contributors from last season's rotation, plus faced the unexpected exodus of its backcourt depth when Ja'Rob McCallum, Lonnie and Shaq Boga all transferred out of the program.
Hoping to play at a faster pace this season, Jeter has not been able to produce much positive consistency at all as a result of this inexperience at guard. Sound familiar?
While Wisconsin is learning all too well the plight of inexperienced guards, the Badgers need a spark from the front court. Specifically Mike Bruesewitz, who returned to practice Friday. Bruesewitz is a game-time decision for tonight as he recovers from a concussion suffered when he collided with his man-mountain of a teammate, 6'10", 255-pound Evan Anderson, in practice on Dec. 6.
You can complain about Ryan Evans' regression all you want, but Wisconsin has really struggled with an identity in the post-Jordan Taylor era. With his floppy red 'do and primal yells, Bruesewitz (along with Josh Gasser) was the emotional rudder of the team. The senior forward must regain his health, stability and energy to guide Wisconsin the rest of the season.
My guess is Bruesewitz plays, but expect freshman Sam Dekker to start his third straight game. Let's not pretend that Milwaukee cannot beat Wisconsin in Madison, but it's highly unlikely. So the goal again is finding that passion ... a shared vision. And for the younger guards, getting more reps. They should be able to look to Wisconsin's experienced seniors up front to take their cues.
On the Milwaukee side, the Panthers have experience in the front court as well, led by its two leading rebounders. Senior James Haarsma, from Racine, pulls down 6.3 rebounds per game, while junior Kyle Kelm from Randolph adds 4.5 per contest.
Projected Starting Lineups
|Jared Berggren, Sr.||F||Kyle Kelm, Jr.|
|Ryan Evans, Sr.||F||James Haarsma, Sr.|
|Sam Dekker, Fr.||F||Austin Arians, Fr.|
|Ben Brust, Jr.||G||Paris Gulley, Sr.|
|Traevon Jackson, So.||G||Jordan Aaron, Jr.|
KenPom win probability: 99% (7548 W) 62 possessions
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