Can Samford Really Prepare Wisconsin For Big Ten Play?

Tim Williams (32) is the lone bright spot for a struggling Samford squad. - Andy Lyons

Wisconsin gets one final chance to find its spark before the conference slate begins.

Stop me if you've heard this one before: "Major conference powerhouse concludes pre-conference schedule with Southern Conference lightweight."

Happens all the time, right? Of course it does. So why am I rankled a bit more this season with Wisconsin's final matchup before Big Ten play kicks off Jan. 3rd? It might be because I really have no idea if this horse is a winner. I'm preparing to emotionally engage in a grueling three-month sojourn with a team that could be a tragically-flawed exception to Bo Ryan's string of Top 4 league finishes.

Will these Badgers (8-4) ever get over the hump against the waves of quality competition that await them? Can they rebound against the big boys? Can they get to the free throw line more consistently? Will a point guard or go-to- scorer emerge?

What's disappointing about this weekend is that we won't learn the answers against the Samford Bulldogs (3-10) -- a team with no experience, no height, and no depth.

Six-foot-eight freshman forward Tim Williams is the rising star of note for the Bulldogs, leading the team in scoring (14.7 points-per-game) and rebounding (7.8). If Williams returns to the starting lineup, he'll be the only Samford player taller than 6'5" to do so.

Samford also features Wisconsin native Connor Miller at guard. Starting alongside Miller is fellow sophomore Raijon Kelly, who has scored in double-figures in all 13 games this season, but has also racked up 45 turnovers. In comparison, no Badger player has more than 18 turnovers.

Head coach Bennie Seltzer took his first head coaching gig this season back home in the Birmingham, Ala., area after spending the past several years under Tom Crean at both Marquette and Indiana. He'll know exactly what kind of pain awaits his team inside the Kohl Center.

And our pain will be that Samford is one of the few teams that plays at an even slower pace than Wisconsin.

I guess the plus side is that Wisconsin is going to look really good for the next 40 minutes of game action. The Badgers have conquered the most delicious cupcakes on their schedule in convincing fashion; UW has won eight games by an average of 28.5 points.

But for fans spoiled on the regular season success of Ryan's Badger teams, looking really good isn't good enough. One of those 14 guys in that huddle has got to do something spectacular Saturday afternoon for anyone to take notice or generate any excitement heading into the Big Ten season.

Beyond the chance that Sam Dekker announces himself yet again as the future of Wisconsin basketball (as he did against Arkansas), someone finds a way to get Jared Berggren 20 looks at the bucket, Ben Brust sets another 3-point shooting record or the light "goes on" for either Traevon Jackson or George Marshall, we are looking at a game with all the makings of another meaningless blowout.

Home court advantage? Check. Non-power conference patsy? Check. Opponent plays terrible defense? Check. Neither of the three criteria is unusual for a big-time program in the preseason. It is worth noting, however, that Wisconsin's non-con strength of schedule ranks 233rd in the country according to KenPom.com. This SOS is much lower than the previous few years despite including the most impressive collection of top-flight, pre-conference opponents in recent memory.

So the Badgers could win by 50 points and it would not mean a thing to me in terms of how ready Wisconsin is to face the likes of Minnesota and Illinois -- let alone Michigan, Indiana, MSU, OSU, etc.

And in the end, that's how I know I'm hooked. Because I don't know anything yet, and uncertainty is somehow beautiful. And because, even on the small scale of my favorite above average college basketball team, I still believe in 'maybe this time' ...

Projected Starting Lineups

Wisconsin Pos. Samford
Jared Berggren, Sr. F Clide Geffrard, Jr., Fr.
Ryan Evans, Sr. F Tim Williams, Fr.
Sam Dekker, Fr. F / G Will Cook, Jr.
Ben Brust, Jr. G Connor Miller, So.
Traevon Jackson, So. G Raijon Kelly, So.

KenPom win probability: 99% (75-48 W) 58 possessions

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For more Wisconsin basketball coverage, follow Phil on Twitter @hoopsmarinara.

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