Hard-hitting opinions on everything Wisconsin Badgers from Bucky's Fifth Quarter's Jake Harris:
Jon Leuer's injury is a huge blow for the Wisconsin men's basketball team. Leuer had put all the pieces together this season, becoming a force offensively and a presence down low on defense. He is the Badgers' second-leading scorer, averaging 15.4 points per game. He has scored in double figures in all but three games this season and has broken the 20-point barrier four times. He also leads the team in rebounding, averaging 6.2 boards per game.
Make no mistake - Leuer will be missed. But if there is any team capable of enduring the loss of one of its key contributors, it is Wisconsin. Bo Ryan's system is predicated on sharing the load offensively and helping one another on defense. Two other starters also average in double figures for the Badgers, and Jordan Taylor is pretty close at 9.3 points per game. It is the very definition of a team. Ryan Evans, Rob Wilson and Jared Berggren have seen a surprisingly large number of minutes off the bench and can bring some additional scoring and energy.
And the Badgers have succeeded without Leuer before. He picked up two fouls quickly in both the Ohio State and Penn State games, and watched from the bench as the team built substantial halftime leads each time. Wisconsin also knocked off the fourth-ranked team in the country while only getting four points from Leuer. So it can be done.
This isn't the best timing for a four-to-six-week absence, with tough road games at Northwestern and Ohio State upcoming, not to mention a trip to Purdue later this month and a home game against conference leader Michigan State on Groundhog's Day. But it certainly beats the circumstances of three years ago, when another big man, Brian Butch, went down with an elbow injury towards the end of the regular season. He was lost for the Big Ten Tournament as well as the Badgers' all-too-brief run in March Madness. Every indication is that Leuer will be back well before the postseason - and that's what really matters.
Not too many fans are clamoring about lack of respect now that the Badgers have risen to 13th in the AP poll. But perhaps the best indication of the regard voters have for Bo Ryan and his Wisconsin squad is the movement of teams who have fallen to the Badgers. Purdue fell only two spots from No. 4 to No. 6 after Wisconsin beat the Boilermakers Saturday. And last month, Duke also barely dropped after losing to the Badgers at the Kohl Center. The Blue Devils fell from No. 6 to No. 8 in the AP poll. It's certainly a sign that voters feel a loss to Wisconsin, especially in Madison, is understandable.
Lost in the justifiable crowing over beating another highly ranked team is the Badgers' dubious record on the road. Wisconsin's next two games are tricky tests away from the Kohl Center, at Northwestern and Ohio State. While the Badgers are perfect at home and won two games in the Maui Invitational in front of mixed crowds, they are just 1-2 in true road games. Losing to last year's national runner-up in Michigan State is acceptable. Dropping a game to UW-Green Bay for the first time ever earlier this season is not.
In a season in which the Badgers could very well win every game at the Kohl Center the rest of the way, their next step is to become more consistent on the road. The way it is now, Wisconsin is a very good team that will finish in the upper third of the Big Ten and make the NCAA tournament. If the Badgers can limit their remaining road losses to one or two, however, they become a legitimate conference title contender, as well as a candidate for a one or two seed in the tournament.
The Badger men's hockey team has a brutal stretch of games coming up in one of the closest MacNaughton Cup races ever. The team's next three weekends feature series against three of the four teams ahead of the Badgers in the conference standings. The top six WCHA teams are within five points of each other right now, so expect plenty of movement in the near future. Two of Wisconsin's next three weekends are on the road, where the Badgers have held their own this year.