Each basketball season is a marathon. Wisconsin's 2013-'14 season is one of the best examples of that analogy.
I have expressed a theory about the long, grueling nature of this season specifically, due to the Canadian summer tour. Just like any foot race, getting off to a good start is important. Wisconsin certainly fulfilled that requirement, going undefeated through early January. The team was proclaimed an early favorite for a conference title, even a Final Four run. But as in long distance running, the consistency is more important. You had better be tough, physically and mentally.
Cue "the Swoon," as our faithful community would call it. Though the sky appeared to be falling during a 1-5 stretch, the Badgers (24-5, 11-5 Big Ten) were picking up valuable experience and learning difficult lessons about themselves.
The only team Wisconsin beat during the Swoon? Purdue.
It's fitting that the Boilermakers (15-14, 5-11) return to Madison for Senior Day. Last season, a similarly positioned Wisconsin team was blown apart by a Matt Painter squad comprised of many of the same key players that will take the court this Wednesday.
Not that it's a loss that sticks out in Bo Ryan's mind. When Ryan spoke to the media this week, he reaffirmed his belief in moving on to the next game and measuring the bad with the good over the course of a season, and in turn, an entire career.
"If you want your life -- the meaning of your life -- to be about one game, then, boy, you're pretty shallow in your existence," Ryan said on Monday afternoon.
Regardless of their head coach's position on the importance of Senior Day, the loss to Purdue last year was an eye-opening loss for the Jared Berggren-Mike Bruesewitz-Ryan Evans class, which regrouped to make a nice run in the Big Ten tourney.
"They certainly weren't failures because they didn't finish the last game at home," Ryan said. "How about all the other home games that that group gave the fans and themselves and their teammates and their fellow students?"
Ryan has trusted the same principles which helped those players bounce back from a lackluster end of the 2013 regular season, and now his team is once again the hunt for a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance.
As the Badgers saw on Sunday against Penn State, games against the bottom half of the Big Ten can be choppy waters to navigate. Heck, Illinois is on a three-game winning streak.
Though Purdue has not experienced the same success as the Illini recently, but they've been damn close. An incredible last-second shot in overtime by Glenn Robinson III saved Michigan in West Lafayette last Wednesday. The Boilermakers followed that up with an inspired second half on the road at Iowa, though they fell just short again.
Free throws were Purdue's undoing against Iowa. The Boilers missed 4-of-6 free throws in the last two minutes, because of which they were forced to foul. The Hawkeyes made 7-of-8 free throws in the final minute to make the final score 83-76.
Wisconsin hasn't had much trouble on the free throw line lately. The No. 9 Badgers have paraded to the charity stripe against their last pair of opponents (Indiana and Penn State) and have sunk 52-of-61 (85.2%) free throws over their past three games. It's been vintage Bo Ryan basketball.
Free throw shooting is only one of the things the Badgers have improved over the course of the season. Despite his occasional forced shot or wild turnover, Traevon Jackson seems to have found his sweet spot in the offense. Nigel Hayes emerged as a bonafide weapon. The freshman has now come full circle: he doesn't need to shoot the ball to affect the game, whether it means being a decoy or delivering the perfect pass to a cutting teammate.
Senior Ben Brust, as Ryan is quick to point out, has worked hard his whole career to contribute in many ways even when his shot is not falling. And to his credit, Brust never gets discouraged when shooting his way back into a groove.
Yet Wisconsin's true stars are its talented forwards. Both Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky have learned to fight the "soft" label by getting after rebounds with more intensity. Dekker has had more offensive rebounds in the past four games (10) than he collected in the 10 games prior. Kaminsky has increased his rebounding over the same time period, enough to now rank fifth in the Big Ten with 6.8 boards per conference game.
Together, Dekker and Kaminsky are formidable enough to contend with Purdue's A.J. Hammons, one of the top rebounders in the league.
With three Badgers -- Brust, Evan Anderson and Zach Bohannon -- set to made their final appearances on the Kohl Center floor against Purdue, everything UW has learned together points toward a happier Senior Day and a strong final kick to this race.
Projected Starting Lineups
|Frank Kaminsky, Jr.||C||A.J. Hammons, So.|
|Sam Dekker, So.||F||Rapheal Davis, So.|
|Josh Gasser, Jr.||G / F||Kendall Stephens, Fr.|
|Ben Brust, Sr.||G||Terone Johnson, Sr.|
|Traevon Jackson, Jr.||G||Ronnie Johnson, So.|
KenPom win probability: 91% (78-64 W) 65 possessions
Join the Badger conversation on Facebook! Go to our Facebook page and "like" us!
For more Wisconsin basketball coverage, follow Phil on Twitter @hoopsmarinara.