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Wisconsin basketball: Garded optimism

B5Q gives some light at the end of the tunnel for the men’s basketball program.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 27 Wisconsin at Iowa

This week has not transpired the way that most had hoped. Wisconsin has lost three of their last four games, with a tough match up with Michigan State looming. Amidst the team struggles, redshirt sophomore Kobe King has opted to leave the program, and Brad Davison will be sidelined for the Michigan State game as he serves a one-game suspension.

During a very tumultuous week, there was very little positive to report within the program. With that understanding, there are still positives to glean from this season, and reasons for optimism in general. Here are three reasons for hope moving forward:

No. 1: Got grit

There are a lot of various things that people can call the Wisconsin Badgers men's basketball program. In fact, most of the players and coaches have undoubtedly seen some negative statements being made about them this past week by fans and random people across the state alike. One quality that this team definitely has is grit, and there is no denying that.

The young players that call the Kohl Center home, have endured a lot this season. Micah Potter was denied, on multiple occasions, a waiver for eligibility, leaving him unable to compete for the first chunk of the season. On a much greater scale, which definitely rises well above a transfer or a suspension, the familial loss of Howard Moore’s wife and daughter, and the absence of Howard on the sidelines has been felt deeply by this team.

Through it all they have battled. The coaches and players have rallied around one enough for comfort, and have push through adversity time and time again this year in the name of winning basketball games for the Wisconsin sewn onto the front of their jerseys.

With 10 regular season games remaining on the schedule, this Wisconsin squad still has the opportunity to add to their NCAA Tournament resume, and get into the big dance. The Badgers have six of their remaining games at home, a space where they have shot much better. Add in three of their remaining away games are against teams below them in the conference standings, and the stretch run is manageable.

All is not lost.

I am unable to assure fans that the team will meet preseason expectations, or be a team that is capable of making a deep tournament run; but I can guarantee that the players and coaching staff are not packing it in. Neither should you. Because right now the team is playing for much more than the names on their backs, and they have shown resilience throughout the year. Being a fan is about being there for the successes, and the adversity.

No. 2: Opportunities aplenty

With the loss of Kobe King comes a greater opportunity for others. The chief benefactor from King’s decision is likely to be Tyler Wahl. A heralded recruit, Wahl has invigorated this team at times this season with his hustle and attitude. In the preseason, both D’Mitrik Trice and Brevin Pritzl each acknowledged how special of a player Wahl is, and how important he would be for the 2019/2020 team. Wahl has been a versatile contributor for most of the season off of the bench. He has averaged around 17 minutes per game, and around three points, three rebounds per game.

In the absence of King on Monday night against Iowa, it was the true freshman who got the nod in his place. Wahl’s spot in the starting lineup is expected to continue for the remainder of the season, allowing the budding youngster additional time to improve on the fly. He is still growing physically, and is acclimating to the rigors of the conference, but he has been extremely impressive at times this year on each end of the court. While it is never great to see a player of Kobe King’s talent decide to leave, Wahl will reap the benefits. The fruits of his trial by fire this year should pay dividends in the years to come, because Wahl’s best playing days are still ahead of him.

No. 3: Talent influx

Many of the frustrations that Badger fans have is in regard to the Wisconsin offense.

The Badgers are near the bottom of all tempo based metrics, and have suffered through long — drawn out — scoring droughts this season. In regards to efficiency, the Badgers are in the middle of the pack, No. 115, at just barely over a point per possession (1.010 to be exact. Pile up scoring droughts, and down goes scoring efficiency.

The past two seasons, Wisconsin was able to turn to Ethan Happ when a scoring drought occurred. While he had his shortcomings, primarily in shooting outside of the paint, Happ was a player that the team could turn to in crisis. The big man was also able to create his own shot in the post, and on the dribble, a crucial part of the swing offense. Outside of Happ, Wisconsin has had other players like Nigel Hayes, Sam Dekker, Frank Kaminsky, Devin Harris. All of these players were adept at creating their own scoring chances, and were a player that the team could turn to when jump shots weren’t falling.

This years Wisconsin team does not have that. The Badgers are missing players that create their own opportunities, and take someone off the bounce to the rim.

A look back at D’Mitrik Trice’s last second shot against Illinois tells the story. He drove to the rim, but was unable to finish in the crowd of the interior. But that is ok. That is not his game. He is better equipped to pull up and shoot a mid-range jumper, something that he can do well. Many fans can be upset with the loss of King, but he was also limited in his ability to create his own shot. King was another a mid-range shooter, who was able to put together post moves at times, but he never materialized to be the aggressive slasher that the Badgers need.

The good news is that Johnny Davis and Lorne Bowman are both extremely talented players that are able to drive and finish at the rim. The incoming freshman class — which ranks amongst the 20 best nationally— should blend nicely with the returning talent, giving next year’s squad a positive lift. Add in a strong 2021 class as well, with Chucky Hepburn, Matthew Mors and Chris Hodges, all of which are four-stars, and the future is brighter.

The talent level at Wisconsin is increasing, and that should help the Wisconsin offense get back to better efficiency, and a better brand of basketball. Wisconsin is not all that far removed from back-to-back final four appearances, but those teams had a higher amount of skill, and players that could win a one-on-one match up. That heightened ability allowed more freedom within the swing offense, but the play-makers need to be there in order to do so.

Greg Gard has earned his fair share of heat over the past week, but his work on the recruiting trail for the next two classes has been stellar. It is very telling about the great relationships that the staff has built with these players and their families, as the recruits have come out in support in Gard and the Wisconsin program. Those committed high-schoolers will aim to get the Badgers back to the upper echelon of national contention, much of which is predicated on talent.

This week has been one to forget for the Badger faithful, but there's still room for optimism looking ahead.