"Brief" Summary of the Season
What a crazy season! Honestly, I’ve been following UW since the Kelsey era, and I don’t remember such an up-and-down season. Things were looking fine at the beginning, with the rout of Bradley serving as the high point of the non-conference season. The very next game, Wisconsin lost to a tough Illinois St. team and key player Douglass suffered an ACL injury. The team went winless over the Thanksgiving tournament, including giving up double digit leads in two games, including a 20 point lead over Georgia. There was a stretch of 7 straight losses, followed by a win and three more losses. That stretch featured a rash of events that were either concerning or at least not good:
- Tessa Towers took leave from the team
- Krystyna Ellew didn’t travel to the Virgin Islands with the team with no explanation
- Taylor Stremlow of Verona committed to Iowa
- Sydney Hilliard briefly returned and after 6 games retired from basketball
- Savannah White was removed from the roster with no explanation
But just as it seemed like the season was lost, the team gutted out a big win over Minnesota and followed it up with a big road upset of Sparty. Things were looking up! In order to keep us fans on our toes, the team went on an extended losing streak with insane amounts of turnovers, including a 5 point loss to PSU, a 3 point loss to Northwestern (including losing another big lead), a 6 point loss to Rutgers (UW had a lead going into the 4th quarter of each of those games, and was up by 13 over Northwestern at the half). At this point, I was done with the season, it looked like the issues facing the team would make it a lost season. Thankfully, the Big Ten gods scheduled Minnesota again! This time it was a huge win over Minnesota in OT. After getting blown by Iowa, Wisconsin ended with 3 straight wins over Rutgers, Northwestern, and #12 Michigan (who, to be fair, was without its top two scorers). The team finished with a record of 11-19, including 6-12 in the Big Ten, the most wins since 2010-2011. They also finished in 10th place, marking the first time UW didn’t finish in the bottom four in the last 10 years, meaning they got a bye in the tourney. Wisconsin played Purdue in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament. UW got out to a huge lead, up 18 in the second quarter, but Purdue chipped away until they took the lead with a little over 3 minutes left. The last minute was incredibly exciting, with UW getting a huge 3 from Wilke to seemingly give them the win, but poor defense on the last play led to a Purdue 3 and the victory.
What Went Right
- Strong Freshman play. In my estimation, Serah Williams and Maty Wilke were the best and third best players on the team this year (LaBarbera was second, Pospisilova was fourth). That bodes well for the future and gives confidence that the staff was able to identify and sign Williams (Wilke committed under Tsipis). Copeland looked like she could be a starter next year, Even Porter and Krahn showed some signs of good play when they were provided opportunities.
- Player Development. One of the issues with Tsipis was that players never seemed to really improve. Players like Imani Lewis or Sydney Hilliard were about the same from year to year. Under Moseley, juniors Brooke Schramek and Natalie Leutzinger were key contributors and improved over last year. And for the second straight year Wisconsin was playing its best ball at the end of the season, something that couldn’t be said of the Tsipis era.
- Offense. I was surprised to that the offense was good this year. Out of 361 teams, UW was 87th in FG%, 65th in EFG%, 57th in PPSA, and 113th in points per play, which takes turnovers into account. That’s pretty good! Not elite, but good. The team was also 29th in assists per game, and 17th in assisted shot rate, with 65.5% (i.e. 65.5% of made FGs had an assist), and even 111nd in assist-to-turnover ratio. This shows the team really has a system and the players were executing it well.
- Toughness. For all the many issues the team faced, it’s clear they never gave up on the season. There were several losses where the team was in it, even against more talented teams (e.g. Maryland). The players certainly seemed to enjoy playing with each other and for this staff.
What Went Wrong
- Injuries. It’s easy to forget the injuries the team had to deal with. Hilliard, a presumed starter, sat out eight games before playing (she only ended up in 6 games). Douglass had a season ending injury in the 5th game. Stapleton, an expected major contributor, sat out 17 games before playing. LaBarbera missed a couple games with an ankle, Wilke missed a couple games with either a lower leg or back injury (I’ve seen both), and Copeland missed time with an unspecified injury. I don't have a good comparison to other teams, but that seems like a lot.
- Turnovers. Ye gods, the turnovers. At first it was an "okay but needs to be better", but as the team went further into Big Ten play it became a major problem. It did finally improve, coincidentally when Wisconsin started winning more games.
- Defense. Remember how the offense was good? The defense was not good. The Badgers ranked 337th on PPSA and 343nd on points-per-play. That’s really bad.
- Rebounding. All-in-all, the Badgers only got 48.8% of rebounds, while their opponent got 51.2%. That doesn’t sound so bad, but it ranked them 231th. On defensive rebounds, the Badgers only got 67.5%, ranking them 232rd.
- Rotations. Moseley made some real head-scratching decisions about playing time. She would let Pospisilova, Wilke, and LaBarbera play almost the whole game, when Ellew, Copeland (when not injured), Porter, and Krahn could’ve subbed in to get some valuable reps and give the starters a breather. Williams had games where she would barely play in the second half. And why didn’t Vanderpool get any play at all? There might be good reasons for this, but one could also reasonably question Moseley’s in-game strategies.
- Players Leaving. Towers, White, and Hilliard all left the team during the season. Towers and Hilliard were stated as given for mental health, which I’ll take at face value. They should be supported and the staff lauded for being willing to allow them to focus on themselves. But White…we have no information. Especially after Leuhring and Djurstrom were quietly dismissed last year, it’s hard to imagine this being anything other than bad, especially with White being a Moseley recruit. The best that can be said is the players haven’t outwardly criticized Moseley. But it’s a bad look, to say the least.
- Culture Questions. At this point they are still unsubstantiated, but there are rumors that the culture around the program is toxic, with Moseley being "paranoid" and not fostering trust. Again, to emphasize these are just rumors, but they would explain some of the rotation and player absences. If true, this is a fireable offense.
Let’s do this by class:
- Sydney Hilliard: Hilliard looked like she would be a lock for a 1000 point scorer and make a couple all-Big Ten teams. That didn’t happen because she needed to take personal leave. Of course she should take care of herself first, and I sincerely hope she is doing well.
- Sara Stapleton. Stapleton came in as a pretty highly regarded recruit (I’m pretty sure Iowa offered her). She never lived up to that potential, and certainly her injury this year didn’t help.
- Julie Pospisilova. Pospisilova was a nice encapsulation of the team. As Moseley said before the season, "people have no idea how good she could be". I think we knew how good she could be, but for much of the season she was maddeningly inconsistent. As Drew Hamm wrote, she was misused as a first option. It’s easy to see why a coach would think she could be the top player on a team, she had a good shot, and could see the floor well. She finished the season very strong and should be remembered as one of the top 20 or 30 Badgers women’s basketball players. She had massive games against Florida State and Michigan, and some strong games here or there, but was never as consistently good as the team needed her to be.
- Avery LaBarbera. As a heralded transfer, it took LaBarbera a while to get settled in. She had a strong Big Ten season, was the best 3 point shooter in the Big Ten by percentage, and provided strong leadership. Would love to have her for another year, but alas.
- Brooke Schramek. Schramek had a fine junior season, jumping from 8.2 to 11.0 ppg, 52% EFG%, and 1.18 PPSA. She was stricken with the turnover bug, but definitely looked more comfortable out there. The past two years she has been functioning as a big, which I don’t think she is best suited for (she’s a 3 or a stretch 4), but she plays hard despite being out of position.
- Natalie Leutzinger. Probably the feel-good story of the team, the former walk-on earned a scholarship and played like a walk-on should: strong fundamentals, willing to do whatever it takes to help the team win. She won’t be an all-conference performer, but she definitely earned her spot.
- Halle Douglass. As noted, only played 5 games before her injury. Speedy recovery! A likely starter next year if she is able to play.
- Krystyna Ellew. Ellew played really well in her very limited minutes. She had 1.02 PPP and 1.11 PPSA, and very low turnovers. But for whatever reason, she didn’t play much. The fact she didn’t travel to the Virgin Islands didn’t help. I could easily see her transferring out over the offseason.
Approximately one million freshman
- Serah Williams. Let’s start with Williams, the best player on the team. What a freshman season, highlighted by her 31 point 10 rebound scorcher at MSU. She had too many turnovers, and would like to see her rebound more, but she has the potential to be the best Badger WBB player since Jolene Anderson (to be fair, that isn’t a very high bar).
- Maty Wilke. A strong freshman campaign. She missed a couple games due to injury, but had a strong Big Ten season Still, like Williams, provides excitement for the future. Set a record for 3s by a freshman
- Lily Krahn. My personal "why isn’t she playing more?" player. She didn’t get a lot of minutes, but played well when she did. I’m still excited about her, hopefully she can step up next year
- Ronnie Porter. Again, didn’t play a lot, played well when she did. Nice story for a walk-on
- Sania Copeland. She had an undisclosed injury she had to work through, and struggled with confidence (from what I gleaned from Moseley’s statements). It’ll be interesting to see her role next year. I would think she has an inside track to start in LaBarbera’s place
- Sacia Vanderpool. Didn’t play almost at all, unclear why. She is more of a project, we’ll see if she can turn into a contributor next year
- Tessa Towers. Took leave for personal reasons, hope she’s working on her mental health
- Mary Ferrito. Walk-on, didn’t play much
- Savannah White. The eternal mystery
Best Win/Worst Loss
For the best win, it’s tough to choose between Minnesota, Michigan State, Minnesota part 2, and Michigan. Michigan is the best team, but either win against Minnesota came at a really low point in the season. It’s hard to pick, but I’ll say the first Minnesota win. I feel like if they lose that, they end up with 2-3 Big Ten wins.
For the worst loss, there are some good candidates, and at least good there weren’t any truly awful losses. I’ll pick Georgia, where UW had a 20 point lead late in the 3Q and gave up 26 straight points (!!!). Losing to Georgia wasn’t a surprise, but that was a massive lead to blow. Honorable mention is Northwestern, who was winless in the Big Ten and down by 13 at the half.
Checking the Accomplishments
Before the season I listed 5 accomplishments the team should shoot for:
- Have a winning streak. Check! The team had a couple win streaks, including a two game win streak and a three game win streak in Big Ten play alone, the latter being the first since the 2016-2017 season.
- Beat one of the rivals. Check! The team beat Milwaukee and Minnesota.
- Beating a ranked team. Check! The win against Michigan is the most impressive win in Moseley’s tenure.
- Win a Big Ten Tournament game or get a bye. Check! That bye is quite the accomplishment as it had never been achieved before
- Have a Winning Record. This clearly didn’t happen.
Laughing at My Predictions
Before the season, I made some predictions. Let’s see how I did!
- Douglass breaks out. Clearly didn’t happen. I could blame the injury, but even before that she wasn’t going to have the type of season I was imagining.
- UW is a better team. I said this was the easiest prediction, and it was right. HerHoopStats had the team at 258th last year and 176th this year. I wasn’t able to find the NET ranking from last year, but I think it was in the 170s last year and 108 this year. So a definite improvement, to be sure, but not as much as we were hoping.
- The record will only be slightly better. Correct! Three wins is a decent improvement, but most people (including Moseley, if you read her comments) were expecting more
- The Badgers will or won’t finish in the bottom four. This is a tautology, so of course it is correct. It was me waffling on a decision, so it’s fair to say I got it wrong.
Nex year’s class consists of wings Leena Patibandla and Tessa Grady from Ohio, PG D’yanis Jimenez from Florida, and Imbie Jones from Washington. None were top recruits from any of the services, which doesn’t always mean a lot. My personal view is that Patibandla is athletic with a lot of potential, Grady is a natural scorer who can step in as a three point threat, and Jimenez and Jones are players who were offered at positions of need (PG and post respectively) with hopes they’re late bloomers (I thought the same of Serah Williams, so you should be skeptical about the opinions of a message board poster).
For 2024, UW got Grace Grzesk from Notre Dame Academy in Wisconsin. I think this would’ve been a bigger deal if she wasn’t part of a loaded 2024 class that features Ziebell going to UConn, Stremlow going to Iowa, and Patterson going to Marquette, plus Mallegni uncommitted (and UW offered early on). If Grzesk was graduating this year, she’d likely be the #2 player in the state behind KK Arnold. Grzesk is having a fine junior year as well and should be a strong player for UW.
We should expect a recruit or two to sign this summer. UW has offered a lot of high-end recruits, and by my count UW will have 3 more scholarships for the 2024-25 season (transfers may change this). Landing some of this talent would go a long way to changing the perception of the program.
In sum, I think recruiting is improving under Moseley, but I’m not convinced it’s improved to a "regularly make the tournament" level. This is Moseley’s second class, and it can take time to build recruiting. Still, like the on-court product, the summary is "it’s improving, but slower than one would hope".
History suggests that UW will have at least one player come in and one player leave. I won’t pretend to know who might come in. UW could definitely use a post player who could come in and play alongside or backup to Williams (then again, so could everyone in the country, and talented bigs are really tough). Some wing depth wouldn’t hurt either. My count has UW with one extra scholarship, which naturally would change if anyone transfers out.
For who might leave, again with no inside knowledge, Ellew strikes me as most likely. Could Krahn transfer as well?
An Optimistic View
For all the legitimate concerns about the program, the team was better this year than last. Things haven’t gone smoothly by a long shot, but UW was in a pretty terrible state when Moseley took over. The fact that progress is slow could be attributed to a number of injuries and previous regime players not living up to potential. Recruiting is improving, there are signs that player development is actually a thing now, and there are a number of talented freshmen that, if they improve, can provide a real spark to the team. And for all the losses, Moseley’s teams have played tough. In his last season, Tsipis’s team seemed to have given up, whereas Moseley’s teams stayed competitive even under adversity.
A Pessimistic View
This is the view shared by many of us for large parts of 2023. The team turned the ball over too much, and the staff took a long time to correct it. The rotations were inscrutable, and led to losses AND a lack of development for the underclassmen. The defense has been awful for two straight seasons. We were hoping for 13 wins, maybe even exceeding that and getting to the WNIT. Instead, the team struggled to get 11 wins. Worse, it’s not clear that next year’s team is going to be better. Moseley leaned A LOT on Pospisilova and LaBarbera, and it’s not clear who is going to fill in their production.
For both the team and recruiting, the theme is "slight improvements, but needs to get better", and I would argue the most important factor was the upperclassman not producing as expected (Hilliard and Stapleton injured, Pospisilova’s inconsistencies, LaBarbera getting settled in). If that was the only issue, there wouldn’t be nearly the level of concern about whether Moseley was the right person to lead the program. But the other issues, in particular the rotations, the inability to improve turnovers, the players being removed from the team and rumors of toxicity, definitely make things tougher. I’m less confident in Moseley than I was before the season. On a scale of 1-10 for how much I believe this coach can turn Wisconsin into a strong program, where 1 is Bobbie Kelsey and 10 is Geno, I’ll rank Moseley as a 5, maybe a 6, whereas before the season I would’ve said 7 (although it got down to a 3 during some of the low points during the season).
It is too early to say if Moseley will or won’t succeed, and there definitely are supporters amongst the fan base. Assuming there’s nothing toxic going on, she clearly deserves more time. Things aren’t completely rosy, but there are clear improvements over Tsipis.
Other Big Ten Storylines
Updates on other Big Ten storylines I was interested in before the season.
Can Iowa Make a Jump?
Despite being overwhelming favorites to win the Big Ten, Iowa "only" finished in second. Things were looking a little shaky (i.e. Iowa would finish second or third), but they turned it on in the second half of the Big Ten season. They won the Big Ten Tournament, but can they get to the Final Four? Iowa has frequently had high seeds only to lose early on, which will provide the answer to this question.
Will Whalen Survive After the Season?
Wow, she got fired quick! Can’t argue against it, her tenure matched Kelsey (took over a solid team, lost a TON, took several years to get a good recruiting class). The only difference is Whalen is still beloved by the state, whereas Kelsey burned as many bridges as possible. Man, Kelsey was the worst.
Will Kieger Turn Things Around?
Things aren’t great for Penn State. For a team hoping for a winning record, they finished in 13th, including 4-14 in the Big Ten. Their best player is a senior and it’s not clear if she will come back. She won’t be fired this offseason, but this is entering Tsipis-esque "when is it going to get better?" territory.
Both coaches achieved more success than most observers, especially me, thought possible. I never would’ve dreamed Illinois would make the tourney after being the worst Big Ten team last season, but here we are. And Rutgers certainly wasn’t good, but for a team that only has 8 players on its roster, they finished 11th in the conference. That’s quite an accomplishment!