The Calm Before The Storm

Will Mike Bruesewitz and Wisconsin be on the outside looking in come tournament time? - Eric Francis

The Badgers gear up for the long haul towards tournament legitimacy, starting this weekend. How the team responds to one of the toughest stretches of schedule in program history will determine its fate.

After feasting on non-Top 100 competition to start the season (9-0, including five wins against teams ranked lower than 300 by Ken Pomeroy), Wisconsin now faces a stretch of 11 straight games where it will play against a team that entered this week ranked in the Top 50 of the Ken Pomeroy ratings.

Let that sink in for a moment ...

If the Badgers (11-4, 2-0 Big Ten) cannot beat Illinois at the Kohl Center on Saturday -- a team that's lost three of its last five games -- why should we expect them to beat Michigan State, Ohio State or Minnesota in Madison? Can they win on the road at Iowa, let alone at any of those other schools? Toppling Indiana or Michigan at any site is literally out of the question based on the team's early performances.

Wisconsin will play six of these 11 games at home. As we all know, holding serve in your own house is critical. To feel good about their tournament chances, the Badgers need five wins in this stretch, which is doable according to the optimistic Pomeroy numbers. More wins would be fantastic, but even six seems highly unrealistic.

Which is why getting nearly a full week to prepare for No. 12 Illinois (14-3, 1-2) is so important. Beating the Illini is a must.

As we saw Wednesday night when Trevor Mbakwe exposed Illinois inside for 19 points and 11 rebounds in Minnesota's 84-67 win over the Illini, John Groce's team can be beaten up physically. Jared Berggren has an opportunity to man up inside and exert his will on the interior. Though his recent streak of dunks is great and shows aggressiveness, an effort similar to Berggren's second half against Nebraska (6-of-9 shooting) sustained over 40 minutes would do the trick.

Illinois is not a stellar rebounding team, but Wisconsin is. As Jack touched on earlier this week, Ryan Evans brings value to the table in this area. While the Badger rebounding effort is more of a sum-of-its-parts phenomenon, Evans is in fact the top dog on the team by collecting 16.25% of all rebounds available while he's on the court.

But it wasn't Mbakwe's scoring or rebounding that did the real damage against Illinois. No, Illini foul trouble and the Gophers' outside bombing in the second half did more harm.

Wisconsin may have the outside shooting chops to match this, but they lack the perimeter speed to get Illinois into foul trouble. The key will be creating the open looks, while also limiting Illinois' 3-point looks (where U of I shoots 35%) on the other end.

Inevitably, we cycle back to the point guard position. Traevon Jackson was lucky he didn't get yanked at the end of the Penn State game, which I'm still shaking my head over. Jackson had an inexcusably lazy turnover at midcourt that helped PSU crawl within 54-51, then almost hit the bottom of the rim with both free throws after his steal. I wondered at the time what that said about Bo Ryan's confidence in George Marshall, even though Marshall played more minutes (23) than Jackson (21). But then, against Nebraska, Jackson bounced back with two clutch baskets in crunch time to help his team pull out the win. Both he and Marshall logged 21 minutes each against the Huskers.

* * * * *

Though the schedule get immeasurably tougher from here on out, the Illinois game essentially marks the halfway point of the regular season. Despite the bump they will receive by playing a Big Ten schedule, the Badgers are squarely in range of the dreaded tournament bubble right now. Joe Lunardi has Wisconsin squeaking into a play-in game, while UW is currently projected as one of the last four out according to Chris Dobbertean and Andy Glockner.

Blogging the Bracket | ESPN Bracketology | SI's BracketWatch

When this year's first RPI rankings were released this week, Wisconsin was No. 90. Talk about an uphill battle! There are smarter metrics than RPI available to us, but UW does not fare very well in any besides Pomeroy's numbers.

  • Because KenPom.com has always overvalued Wisconsin to some degree, many are having a good laugh that Wisconsin is "only" ranked 17th in the system this season. That is the highest ranking of any popular rating system used today.
  • The Badgers are 31st in the LRMC developed at Georgia Tech, which you can read about in more detail here.
  • Jeff Sagarin's ratings have Wisconsin at No. 40. Two of Sagarin's three ratings methods predict a slim Badger victory over Illinois.
  • The Massey Ratings place the Badgers 47th. Like Pomeroy, these calculations are meant to measure past performance, though they expect UW's weak offense/strong defense profile to lead to a 7-9 record the rest of the way.
  • ESPN's Basketball Power Index (BPI), introduced by "Four Factors" hero Dean Oliver last year, ranks the Badgers 48th. This newer index differs from RPI in that it takes into account final scores, and like kenpom, the locations, but also tries to weigh absences of key players.

It's hard to believe that a team which faced Florida, Creighton, Marquette, Virginia, Cal and Arkansas in the non-conference would have a SOS near the bottom 20% of all college basketball. But that's where UW sits. And Bo Ryan's reputation cannot carry the Badgers through the coming battles. They've got to earn their ticket to paradise with wins.

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

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