There I was, just minding my own business, happily tucked away from the blustery cold back home in Wisconsin.
Vacation. Sitting on a beach, free from work responsibilities and worries about the free-falling Badger basketball team. So free that I didn’t even think to check the score from the Wisconsin-Purdue game several days earlier. When I finally tracked it down, the good news brought a smile to my face.
Equilibrium, I thought. But it was too short-lived. Wednesday night arrived.
/Connects to WiFi … checks game thread … senses danger … retrieves final score.
Home loss to Northwestern?! It felt like rock bottom. Really, like "losing to North Dakota State" levels of bad.
But I was wrong. Rock bottom wasn’t ready for me yet.
Saturday afternoon was worse than losing to Northwestern. Ohio State and Wisconsin, two quality programs caught in the winter doldrums duked it out in an ugly game. The home crowd was loud, but our cheers were not rewarded. One of the worst Thad Matta-led teams in recent memory snuck out of Madison with a win despite never putting together any stretch of offensive proficiency.
Rather than scramble into the aisle to join the herd, I just sat in my seat and hung my head, numb, for the first time this season. The Badgers were Dennis Green’s Arizona Cardinals … they let OSU off the hook.
After talking big about leadership earlier in the week, Sam Dekker barely got back on the court in crunch time. Other than two put backs and the desperation heave at the buzzer, I don't remember a single shot attempt by Dekker, who remains buried deeply in a shooting funk, much like the majority of his teammates. The team appears to have let it's exposed defensive deficiencies carry over to the offensive end.
Even Bo Ryan is frustrated. After I missed watching the Purdue and Northwestern games, it's clear to me that Traevon Jackson's leash has never been shorter, which signals a bit of a change from Ryan. That's a good thing only if others are stepping up to fill the void. It hasn't happened yet.
Ryan mixed thinly veiled comments about talking the talk as opposed to walking the walk into his praise of freshman Nigel Hayes after Saturday's game:
"When you’re not hitting (shots) everyone wants to talk about leadership. I think what I’m looking at is: I saw some guys hustling out there, I saw some guys banging on the glass, I saw Nigel (Hayes) just working. And he does it without talking about it. Maybe that can be infectious. Maybe that can spread to some of the other guys, but for the most part the guys are playing hard."
Questioning when the madness will end is a fairly tired exercise at this point. Things will start to even out. My question is, what quality wins will Wisconsin have to show for it when the season ends?
Even though it has dropped from the AP rankings, Wisconsin still has the second-toughest schedule in the land and is ranked 13th in RPI projections. Typically tough Marquette is struggling as well, lessening the value of that win. Luckily I see Florida, Saint Louis, Green Bay and Virginia barnstorming through their respective conferences to help keep UW's numbers superlative.
Then realism sets in. Are any of those non-conference Ws truly marquee victories?
- Florida (19-2, 8-0 SEC), No. 2 in KenPom - This one is debatable. The win certainly propelled the Badgers to a great start, but the Gators were missing two of their top players at the time in Scottie Wilbekin and Dorian Finney-Smith. There is no question that the Gators are a different (ie: better) team now than they were in November.
- Green Bay (18-4, 8-1 Horizon), No. 60 in KenPom - Arguably Wisconsin's best road win (considering how lifeless Virginia looked at the time). But again, the Phoenix are a front runner in a lesser conference, just the kind of program that could still have successful season even if they lost 10 out of 10 to Wisconsin each year.
- Saint Louis (20-2, 7-0 A-10), No. 24 in KenPom - The Billikens's current run is impressive. However, Saint Louis plays in a lesser conference and lost the only two tough games it played all year. It was a good neutral court win for UW, not quite marquee though.
- Virginia (17-5, 8-1 ACC), No. 8 in KenPom - People might want to polish up an ACC Coach of the Year award for the job Tony Bennett has done switching back midstream to a more deliberate offense that better suits Virginia. The Cavaliers have been a different team since the new year began. They were 9-4 prior to ACC play, and have only lost by four points to Duke on the road since then.
In my eyes, that leaves the Iowa game at the Kohl Center as Wisconsin's best win of the year. The Badgers have three more chances for wins over truly elite teams, but only one chance -- versus Michigan State this weekend -- will come at home. Road trips to Michigan and Iowa remain.
Before even entertaining thoughts of an upset, Wisconsin has to get its shooting touch back. Illinois fought hard against Iowa its last time out and the numbers suggest Tuesday night's game is more of a toss-up than you'd expect: Ken Pomeroy predicts a 66-63 win with only 64% confidence.
The last time Wisconsin was under .500 in conference play was just two years ago when the Badgers started 1-3. In 2009, arguably Bo Ryan's worst UW squad lost six Big Ten games in a row to go three games below .500 before righting the ship.
Interestingly, that season Wisconsin beat Illinois on Feb. 5 to snap the skid. I'd be careful using that as any kind of precursor however – the Badgers also lost to Illinois two weeks earlier in 2009, on the road, to extend what had been a three-game losing streak.
We will witness what kind of team Wisconsin can be this week. There are no gimmes left on the schedule. Will it be another 2009 when the team squeaks into the 20-win club? Or a 2011-'12-type of team, that rallies its confidence in winnable games and punches in a few memorable games down the stretch?
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