So did anyone think when this basketball season started that Wisconsin would lose to two (and counting?) unranked mid-majors on its home floor? I'm not really sure that Western Illinois even counts as a mid-major, but in both games, inconsistency on the Badgers' part was the key -- on defense and offense.
It's just the kind of inconsistency that's expected from such a young team. When it was said there'd be growing pains this year after losing so much scoring and experience from last year, we should have been prepared for nights like these. Western Illinois was nevertheless a major shock -- growing pains became a real thing that night -- but losing to UWM (student Rob Jeter beats master Bo Ryan after 11 tries) for the first time since 1992? Growing pains just got real again.
Maybe we thought that some of the growing pains were overcome after last week's overtime win on the road against No. 14 Syracuse and a domination of very-good Temple on Saturday? Nope, the inconsistency of this young team -- growing pains -- is indeed very real.
This team could still make the Sweet Sixteen -- can you really doubt it? It could also miss the tournament -- can you really dismiss the notion out of hand? When Big Ten play starts and goes on through March, there will be a win against Michigan State, Maryland, or Purdue -- but there will also be a loss to Nebraska, Penn State or Minnesota, too. Highs and lows. Inconsistency.
After this football season, including nine wins over teams that were a collective 33-75 (not one with a winning record) and three losses to top-15 teams, how much inconsistency did we see? All the losses were easy to explain in retrospect and one was even stolen (stolen!). Two were to two of the top five teams in the country. Injuries kept the Badgers from putting their best foot forward in all of them, too. With the quarterback out in front of most of it, inconsistency is a rather apt description.
Now, the point was made (by someone) that if the Badgers could have beaten Alabama, the season would be indelibly memorable even if there was no West Division title or if the Axe finally went back to the Twin Cities. Beating the Tide didn't happen and the West was lost to unexpectedly undefeated Iowa, but the Axe did stay home after what was probably UW's best-played game of the season.
What will we remember in five years about the season? Probably that it was Paul Chryst's first year, the defense was absolutely stellar under rising star Dave Aranda, Joel Stave became the all-time winningest UW quarterback and the Badgers couldn't really run the ball for a variety of reasons. There will still be the nine wins and a solid bowl game against blueblood USC, but the inconsistency may wind up standing out. Beating Bama would have gone a long way to forgetting all of that, though.
So far this basketball season, there have been some ugly losses, but there have also been victories over tournament teams like Temple and VCU, the latter of which was plenty dramatic. There was also that win over Syracuse, on national TV to help win the ACC-Big Ten challenge. There is at least some parallel there to the Alabama chance, but where the football team couldn't overcome a superior opponent, the young basketball team converted against Syracuse. We'll remember that from 2015.
Can't forget about hockey either, especially after its program nadir last season. Even casual fans won't forget the Badgers' early November win over top-ranked North Dakota. There's some adventure for sure, especially when the team's overall record is 3-6-5-0 as conference weekends are just getting started.
Inconsistency? You bet.
So maybe the question is why there should be so much angst -- do these teams actually suck? Are they not fulfilling their potential? Are the expectations just too high? Is it OK to be OK with some big wins, but lackluster overall records, and even more lackluster individual wins and losses? With all these teams, we knew most of it was coming at some point, but it still shocks and rankles.
What can be said over the past year and more is that it has been an adventure. These perennially consistent teams became inconsistent (OK, hockey really did suck last season, and maybe the last few, depending on who you talk to), but what's been lost, really? And if anything has been lost, when can it be regained? The hope is always that the consistently good becomes truly great every so often, or often enough to be considered, by some consensus, "elite." Right now, there isn't even consistently good in several spots.
Basketball got truly great two years ago, but it wasn't expected, even if consistency, as always, was expected (and to be sure, that mid-conference losing stretch shocked and rankled plenty). Last year, the adventure had to wait until March because that's what was expected. That was elite. That's what it feels like, not that anyone needs reminding.
The rest of it -- basketball now, football (to a greater or lesser extent) the past few seasons and hockey for the past few -- is likely what most of the world of major college sports feels like.
It's a strange feeling, for sure. Consistency for these programs has come to be held as almost a birthright, with an occasional breakout to greatness always the goal. What happens when there isn't even consistency? Right now, we're finding out.