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Checking in on Wisconsin women’s basketball

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The season is still alive, but a resurgence will have to wait.

Jonathan Tsipis Susan Ragan-USA TODAY Sports

Wisconsin women’s basketball has had another rough season, but razor-thin hopes of a return to the NIT or NCAA tournament are still alive after defeating No. 12 seed Penn State 65-57 in the first round of the Big Ten tournament on Wednesday.

Up next for Wisconsin (14-17, 4-14 Big Ten) is No. 5 seed Ohio State, which defeated The Badgers twice this season already.

UW started out the season with a strong 6-0 start under third-year coach Jonathan Tsipis, the best start since the 2009-10 season. However, after entering Big Ten play 9-3, it lost 14 of 18 conference games that included a six-game losing streak.

It hasn’t been all bad for Wisconsin, as fans at the Kohl Center were treated to a thrilling come-from-behind victory over Nebraska on Jan. 27. The victory was sealed thanks to this Kelly Karlis buzzer-beater:

Another bright spot has been freshman Imani Lewis, who is second on the team in scoring (12.2 points per game) and rebounds (7.6 per game). When compared to other freshmen in the Big Ten, Lewis ranks third in scoring and rebounds. Her performance this year earned her honorable mention All-Big Ten media honors.

Senior Marsha Howard, who leads the team in scoring at 14.5 points per game, claimed a second-team All-Big Ten selection by the media and honorable mention by the conference’s coaches.

In October 2017, Jon Beidelschies wrote a lovely piece proclaiming the strength of Wisconsin women’s sports. Absent from the piece, however, was women’s basketball, a program that has been the only blemish for women’s sports at UW.

Also, the survey of B5Q readers’ expectations a year ago showed that there is a significant gap in expectations from women’s basketball to other team sports.

Stacked bar graph describing expectations. The important info in the chart is mentioned later in the article.

Unfortunately, women’s basketball has generally met fans’ low expectations. However, the emergence of Lewis is a strong sign, and perhaps the other members of Tsipis’s strong 2018 recruiting class (Carmen Backes, Jasmine Hale, Diamond Bragg, and Maia Caito) will make an impact in the next few seasons.

It has been a rough ride for Wisconsin since it fired Lisa Stone in 2011. Stone lead the team from 2003-2011, earning a 128-119 record, four WNIT berths, and one NCAA tournament appearance. In Stone’s last two seasons, she finished tied for third in the Big Ten. For Wisconsin, this was not good enough. It chose to let Stone go in order to hire one of the top assistants in the country, Bobbie Kelsey, from Stanford.

In many regards the hire made sense. Kelsey was groomed under Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, who has a staggering 1039-240 record as a head coach and is a two-time national champion. Stanford is also regarded as an academically rigorous school, so Kelsey’s experiences there should have transferred nicely.

It did not, and now Kelsey is to Badger women’s basketball fans as Don Morton is to Badger football fans.

In Kelsey’s five years at UW, she made zero post-season appearances, never finished better than ninth in the Big Ten, and accumulated a 47-100 record. After the 2015-16 season, Barry Alvarez had seen enough.

Wisconsin turned to Tsipis who, as opposed to Kelsey, came in with head coaching experience. That said, Tsipis was also an understudy of the great Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw, which mirrored Kelsey’s strength. At George Washington, Tsipis turned around the program and earned two conference championships in four seasons.

Tsipis’s first two seasons at Wisconsin continued where Kelsey left off, as the team failed to win ten games both seasons (9-22 and 9-21 records in 2016-17 and 2017-18, respectively). Granted, Tsipis’s 2018-19 season has been stronger at 14-17, but his overall record is roughly equivalent to Kelsey’s.

This season has been a very small step forward for Wisconsin women’s basketball, and it will need to take several large steps forward in the coming years. Given UW’s success in women’s sports, the Badgers should be at least occasionally competitive in the Big Ten. The next few seasons may determine if that will materialize.