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B5Q Roundtable: early season Wisconsin men’s basketball discussion

The Badgers are off to a surprising start. What does the staff like about Greg Gard’s squad so far?

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 04 Marquette at Wisconsin Photo by Lawrence Iles/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Wisconsin Badgers men’s basketball team is 7-1 on the young season and, as they prepare for their two weird early-season Big Ten games this week, we thought it best to take a look back and maybe recalibrate some of our preseason thoughts. Ryan, J.J. and Jake got together to discuss Johnny Davis, Chucky Hepburn’s defense and who they now think will finish in the top-four of the Big Ten.

On a scale of 1-10 how shocked are you with the start to this season?

Ryan: I won’t go quite with a 10, but I will say an eight. It was hard to say what we would get from this team prior to the season, as the team lost so many players from last season and have so many true freshmen and other young, untested players that are contributing. Eight games into the season, the youth movement is certainly working for this team.

J.J.: I’d give it a nine. We knew this team would have certain advantages over last year’s squad. We knew they’d be hungry, talented and energetic. But I don’t know how quickly I expected them to be good. This really has been the best case scenario for this unit. Davison’s leadership as a twentieth year senior really has elevated the team’s floor and ceiling. Davis has been the tip of the spear he had to be. And the young core has offered immediate contributions all over the floor. The 2021 Badgers look like they’d wipe the floor with the far more experienced and highly-touted 2020 edition of the team.

Jake: 10. This team is really inexperienced, pretty much the polar opposite from last year’s team. Outside of Davison, Tyler Wahl and Johnny Davis, this team returned zero impact players from the 2020-21 team. I didn’t see Davis taking as big of a step forward as he has and thought this team was going to lack play-makers. This team is going to go as far as Johnny D. takes them and so far, he’s been absolutely incredible, resulting in a hot start to the season.

What is your favorite part of Johnny Davis’ improved game?

Ryan: His aggressiveness on offense. It is refreshing to see a Badger player constantly attacking and not waiting for scoring opportunities to come to them. He is always out there making things happen for himself and for others on the team.

J.J.: Similar to what Ryan described, his killer instinct on offense is so, so nice to see. This team needs a guy that’s unafraid to drive right at the heart of the opposing defense and get to the rim even when there’s heavy defense. He’s never afraid to fight for a shot and more often than not he makes them once he gets them.

NCAA Basketball: Marquette at Wisconsin Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

Jake: Playmaking. Last year, Davis was the young freshman on a team of practically grown men looking for others to create for him. Now, on a team full of youngsters, he’s almost looked to as a veteran next to Davison and Wahl. It is now his job to not only create for himself, but create for others. It was evident just how valuable he is to this offense in the Badgers’ loss to Providence which Davis missed due to a bruised heel.

Which player has surprised you the most with their play so far?

Ryan: Tyler Wahl has been huge for Wisconsin so far this season. He is still doing all the little things that he does well to help the team win, but he is also upping his offensive production, scoring nearly four more points per game this season than he has in past seasons and has already posted a new career high of 18 points.

J.J.: I agree with Jake. Crowl had to step into a pretty significant role this year as the Badgers replaced two starters down low and he’s stepped up big time. Crowl had to develop from a player that rarely even saw the court in garbage time in 2020 to a game in and game out presence. And so far, he’s been up to the task.

Jake: Steven Crowl. No returning player saw their role change more dramatically than Crowl. Despite playing a total of 36 minutes last season as a true freshman, Big Steve has started all eight games this season and has been a really solid inside presence for the Badgers on defense, as well as being able to extend to the three-point line on offense. So far, he’s been everything Nate Reuvers thought he was last year (not a big Reuvers guy).

Would you, like me, commit a serious crime if it meant that Chucky Hepburn played defense like he has already, but for the entire season?

Ryan: I don’t think a crime would need to be committed as collateral…he has been as advertised so far as a true freshman and is a gritty defender. It was great to see him put up the performance he did against Marquette with season highs in assists, steals and points. I think it’s just the beginning.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: NOV 24 Maui Invitational - Wisconsin v St. Marys Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

J.J.: Hepburn was touted as a stellar defender and he’s lived up to that expectation so far this season. It’s awesome to see just how completely willing he is to engage the other teams’ point guards anywhere on the floor and force the issue on the opposition. His play on the defensive end is one of those little things that can elevate a good team into a great one- just making the team that much harder to play against in every game. I’m not sure if it’s worth a crime, but I’d give up half of whatever is on my Wiscard right now for it.

Jake: Hepburn has been a joy to watch on the defensive side of the ball. He essentially has the ability to take the opposition’s starting point guard out of the game on offense. That being said, I’m not sure I’d commit a “serious crime” to ensure he continues playing this way for the rest of the year, but once the weather drops down into low double digits/single digits, I’d go do some snow angels on the Kohl Center lawn in nothing but some swim trunks if that would do the trick.

Looking at the state of the Big Ten currently, where do you see the Badgers finishing in the conference?

Ryan: I don’t think it is crazy to think that Wisconsin could land themselves a top-four finish in the conference and a double-bye for the conference tournament. I mean they have already won the Maui Invitational (including a win over No. 12 Houston), a road win at Georgia Tech and a win against in-state rival Marquette. This team is on a roll and if they keep up their level of play, there is no reason they shouldn’t be a top team in the conference.

J.J.: Just to slap an arbitrary number on it I’ll say fifth. I think Purdue is the best team in the conference (I tried telling you all in our first roundtable!), and while I’d say the various top teams below them like Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State, Indiana and Illinois all have different vulnerabilities that have led to worse initial records than the Badgers, I think many of those slow starts will even out and over half that group mentioned above ends up ahead of Wisconsin by the season’s end.

Iowa v Purdue Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Jake: I think the Big Ten is not nearly as good as everyone thought it was going to be coming into the season, opening the door for teams like the Badgers. Purdue is the real deal and the clear cut best team in the conference. Michigan State is not far behind, and then you have your teams including Illinois, Indiana and Ohio State who are all incredibly talented and could make a run at the conference. The question is, where does Wisconsin fall? As of now, I have this team at the back end of that second tier, just ahead of Indiana, Michigan and Iowa. I’m very excited to see how the Badgers handle Big Ten play.

Who do you have as your updated top-four in the Big Ten now?

Ryan: Purdue, Illinois, Michigan State and Wisconsin

J.J.: Purdue, Michigan State, Illinois, Michigan

Jake: Purdue, Michigan State, Ohio State, Illinois