It will never get old typing this: the Wisconsin Badgers men’s basketball team won the Big Ten title this week. This has been an amazing season that has featured seemingly countless highs and firsts and records and, well, championships. No one expected the Badgers to be here.
Sure, the team and the coaches say they expected this, but they kind of have to say that. I’m sure Nebraska’s players also thought they were going to win the Big Ten at the beginning of the season.
We know the season isn’t over yet: there is one more regular season game and then two more tournaments to play. But life is short and celebrating good things as they happen is fun.
Let’s discuss what, specifically, has made this season so fun so far!
So, uh, yeah…nobody on this beautiful website predicted the Badgers to finish higher than eighth this season. In your entire sports fandom, where does Wisconsin winning the regular season Big Ten title this year rank on the craziness scale?
J.J.: If I remember correctly, my earliest analysis of this year’s team was “I think they’ll be fun and exciting, but I’m not sure if they’ll be good.” On the bright side, I was 2/3rds right! This team was definitely fun, and extremely exciting, but more importantly they’re more than good- they’re great.
It seems like this years’ team is like if all the problems of last years’ (theoretically better) team became strengths. The chemistry is excellent. The bigs are overmatched physically, but are able to make an impact on the game regardless. The defense is consistent and tireless. And of course, Johnny Davis. I can’t realistically say this title is crazier than my Giants beating arguably the greatest team in NFL history in the 2007 Super Bowl, but it’s certainly up there.
Bremen: I had the lowest expectations for the men’s basketball team this year that I had ever had while being a Wisconsin fan. I thought the ceiling was about .500 in Big Ten play. Clearly they surpassed that big time. If you would’ve said the Badgers would reach the NCAA Tournament, I would have taken it. Each win was a pleasant surprise until I suddenly expected it. It was truly special and crazy.
Ryan: I mean, when we did the early season roundtable, I was the only one that had Wisconsin in my B1G top four… so… I don’t think it’s all that crazy that they won. In looking at Wisconsin’s recent history, they have been one of the top teams in the conference, and typically find a way to win, regardless of who is coach.
Can we just talk about Chucky Hepburn forever? Tell me what you like best about him. I’ll start: he’s amazing and I love him like a son.
J.J.: Chucky Hepburn started off as a glue guy and now looks like a player that will be the cornerstone of this program for years to come. The defense is as excellent as advertised. He’s consistently taken on some of the Big Ten’s toughest matchups and relished in them. But perhaps bigger than his defense is his knack for putting out his best performances in the biggest games. There’s something to be said about wanting the ball in your hands with just a few seconds left that sets certain players apart from the rest. To have that mentality- and the ability to back it up- as a freshman is special.
Bremen: As stated, I will set fire to things for Chucky Hepburn. Since he was first sicced on opposing point guards like a guard dog, his effort on defense won me over. And as he’s grown on into the season, he has got an offensive spark and poise that makes you forget he is a freshman. We will clearly talk about Johnny Davis’s shooting star, but I think Greg Gard found another future superstar in Hepburn.
Ryan: I too love him like he is one of my own. I also like his confidence. He just has a certain swagger that you don’t see too often with freshmen and because of that he holds his own with experienced B1G guards. When the season started he seemed like a talented player, but he really has gotten better and better as the season has gone on.
While Wisconsin’s bench doesn’t score a lot of points, which contribution from a bench player has been the most important this season?
J.J.: Chris Vogt has been the depth piece the Badgers have needed down low this year, even if it’s just because he can provide an able body to eat up minutes and make sure Crowl isn’t putting up 40 minutes again. He also provides a more physical option to keep teams honest in the post, and I think that’s a different look that’s really valuable given Crowl’s usage this season as more of a stretch five than a traditional hyper muscular big man.
Bremen: I’d take Chris Vogt. He seemed to get the most minutes especially as Crowl was kind of learning the ropes of the rugged Big Ten-play at center. He had some games where he really provided a scoring spark, and always had good defensive effort whenever he was called on. Both games against Purdue stick out to me of games we don’t win without him, which is about as big of a bench impact as you could have.
Ryan: Chris Vogt. He’s done a great job playing behind Crowl and he’s made an impact defensively whenever he steps on the court. He also provides good size and can match up well against opposing bigs.
This may be difficult, but can you each rank your top-three Johnny Davis performances from this season?
J.J.: 1. January 3rd at Purdue. This was the Badgers, and Johnny’s, statement game on the national level, in my view. Badger fans and Big Ten fans knew what Davis and Wisconsin had was top fifteen quality before the trip to Mackey. When Davis dropped 37 in a Badger win against a top ten team, national pundits started to pay attention.
2. February 15th at Indiana. The Badgers needed Johnny’s best and then some late on the road in Bloomington and every time he was called upon he provided. This was a game Wisconsin very easily could have lost if they had a player who wasn’t just as good, but more importantly as clutch, as Davis front and center.
3. This week against Purdue. This might be recency bias, but whatever. This was the biggest game at the Kohl Center in years and Davis delivered. From working out of some quality Purdue defensive schemes keyed in on stopping him to hitting a massive shot late on, Davis responded to a quiet first half with one of his best second halves of the season when he was needed most.
Bremen: His first game against Purdue is the obvious answer to me. It was when I realized that he was going to be playing in the Association next fall. I’d say second was the game against Houston early in the season, helping guide past a solid non-conference opponent with 30 points. And finally waving goodbye to the Breslin Center crowd after beating the Spartans in East Lansing.
Ryan: 1. Feb 15th at Indiana. 2. Jan 3rd at Purdue. 3. Feb 8th at Michigan State. All three came in hostile environments and his swagger in those games was unmatched. Waving goodbye to the Hoosier and Spartan faithful was also awesome.
Greg Gard has gotten a lot of criticism online. Shockingly, this blog, run by a reactionary mad man, has been relatively fair to him, I think. He has now won two conference titles in the last three years. Where does Gard rank nationally as a head coach?
J.J.: I tend to think rankings are a bit of an unfair metric to compare players and coaches given that they tend to often be hypocritical in reasoning and can rely on minute or anecdotal details like a single head to head matchup. But that being said, I think it’s fair to say he’s beginning to make his case to be in the top tier. The Big Ten is no cakewalk and he’s been able to navigate it every year despite circumstances that seemed to consistently rise up against Wisconsin- from Covid issues, to the Kobe King fiasco, to the Ogg Hall Incident. And this year, he’s taken a team widely considered to have taken a step back, and made them national contenders. He’s not the most flashy guy in the world, but he makes good adjustments in-game and has quietly been raising the program’s floor in recruiting.
Bremen: I don’t know why he doesn’t get more love from national media, especially since he is a guy who most “old school” guys would say is doing things the “right way.” He has an obvious argument for the national coach of the year honors considering the pre-season expectations, but I also think he’s proven my — and most Wisconsin fans’ — preconceived notions. He has an eye for talent even if it takes some time to grow, he’s made good in-game adjustments, seems to run good inbounds plays often and clearly fixed whatever weird lingering locker room drama there was from last year. It seems like the players like playing for him, and he’s obviously getting results.
Ryan: I think it would be hard to not include him in the same breath as other top coaches in the country, given that he has won the B1G two of the last three years, when really no one gave them a chance to win either year. He’s also doing a great job recruiting, scoring a couple of the best recruiting classes in the school’s history.
Let’s look ahead. Do the Badgers beat Nebraska this weekend and win the conference outright? Do they win the Big Ten Tournament?
J.J.: I mean, you kind of have to win the Nebraska game. If you storm the court after Purdue, cut down the nets, and lift the trophy at center circle it’s uh, not a great look to lose your remaining game and make that title a shared title. But they also have no reason to not win the Nebraska game with relative comfort. The Huskers aren’t a dumpster fire anymore after a more than credible road win over a ranked Ohio State team, but they’re also not a team Wisconsin should be losing to after they just clinched a share of the Big Ten title. The Big Ten tournament is a bit trickier. The regular season title is now the Badgers, but Illinois is still a terrible matchup for this team in a head to head game. There are plenty of teams that might have the firepower to make a run at the title- and even if the Badgers have a one seed they’ll face a gauntlet to lift another trophy. But this team has defied expectations all year long, so truly what’s stopping them?
Bremen: Easy money is on the Badgers beating Nebraska since the Huskers are buried deep in the basement of the Big Ten. As far as the tournament, that’s a harder thing to predict. I would rather not have to go against Illinois considering the nightmare that is Kofi Cockburn, but with UW likely to secure the No. 1 seed, it makes a path to the final easier. There is a good chance the Badgers can be cutting down another pair of nets in Indianapolis.
Ryan: Yes, Wisconsin will beat Nebraska, win the conference outright and score the top-seed in the tournament. Securing the top line in the tournament certainly does make the road to a conference tournament title win a bit easier, but this conference is stacked, so it’s still a tough task. Regardless, I think Wisconsin will win the conference tournament - I don’t think there is anything this team cannot do.