The final piece of the Wisconsin men's basketball team's scheduling puzzle came together yesterday with the release of the 2014-15 Big Ten schedule. With the conference expanding to 14 teams, scheduling that was previously just "kinda" unbalanced has become a full-blown, lottery-level crapshoot. Wisconsin appears to have gotten a softer league slate than is desirable based on its single-plays, but there are plenty of stellar matchups to look forward to, both home and away.
Here are the 10 biggest games of the entire season in reverse order. Hint: Season-ticket holders appear to get great quality, but not necessarily quantity ...
10. Minnesota, Feb. 21 (Sat.)
Wisconsin's first game against the Golden Gophers kicks off a brutal closing stretch in Big Ten play, in which it continues on to Maryland, comes back home for Michigan State, then finishes up with road games versus Minnesota and Ohio State. Holding serve at home against the plucky Goofs is mandatory for the Badgers to avoid any late-season collapses. I would hate to see Bo Ryan ever lose a second time to a man like Richard Pitino.
9. At Michigan, Jan. 24 (Sat.)
Simply put, Michigan has been the class of the Big Ten the past two seasons, winning 59 games, reaching the NCAA finals and Elite Eight in back-to-back seasons and adding its second Big Ten regular season title in three seasons last year -- by three full games! The staggering amount of NBA talent that left Michigan leaves the Wolverines vulnerable. Yet as long John Beilein can field a strong backcourt, as he can once again with Caris Levert, Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin, the road to a championship goes through Ann Arbor.
8. At Marquette, Dec. 6 (Sat.)
This I-94 rivalry game won't have as much juice as usual this season due to Marquette retooling a bit and hiring first-time head coach Steve Wojciechowski. Though many UW fans no doubt hate Wojo, we hate him for reasons other than being the Marquette coach so far. Plus, this game is the morning of the Big Ten Championship game, which Badger football fans will hopefully be a bit preoccupied with.
7. At Nebraska, Feb. 10 (Tues.)
Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln earned the nickname "The Vault" by virtue of the Cornhuskers' 15-1 record there in its first season of operation. Nebraska returns all but one player from last years breakthrough NCAA tournament team, including swingman Terran Petteway. The only thing taking any luster off this game is the fact that the two teams meet a month earlier in Madison, where the Badgers will be heavily favored.
6. At Ohio State, March 8 (Sun.)
The regular season finale has "Sunday afternoon on CBS" written all over it. The young Buckeyes should have matured greatly by that point, ready to give the visiting Badgers all they can handle in their only 2014-15 meeting. Last season, In addition to signing the No. 8 recruiting class, Thad Matta also returns an solid, if unspectacular, four-man senior class. Wisconsin's hopes for a conference title could come down to the final day in Columbus.
5. At Maryland, Feb. 24 (Tues.)
The addition of the Terps for hoops is the silver lining in the Big Ten's recent over-expansion. Wisconsin and Maryland meet for the first time as conference foes in College Park at what is now known as the Xfinity Center, hoping to add a few more memorable games to their brief history together. Wisconsin won the most recent meeting back in 2009.
After a tumultuous offseason, who knows how good the Terrapins will be, but year-after-year, you can bet they'll be talented.
4. Battle 4 Atlantis Championship, Nov. 28 (Fri.)
Normally I'm a pretty level-headed or even pessimistic fan, but if there is one year to get ahead of ourselves, it's this year. So, yes, I've already advanced Wisconsin in my B4A bracket, where we're hoping the Badgers take on the J.P. Tokoto and the North Carolina Tar Heels. The other likely option would be Milwaukee-native Kevon Looney and UCLA, which isn't too shabby either. And even if UW happens to win its opener, then lose to say, Florida in round two, it would still likely meet the UCLA-UNC loser in the third place game the same day.
No matter how you slice it, circle the day after Thanksgiving for some Badger hoops on ESPN. The Battle 4 Atlantis is easily the premier pre-conference tournament going down this season and it would be a huge tone-setter for Wisconsin's season to bring home the hardware.
3. Iowa, Jan. 20 (Tues.)
It's somewhat difficult to pick between the two Iowa tilts this season, separated by only 11 days and a single trip to Michigan. But this home game versus the Hawkeyes will be Fran McCaffery's first trip back to Madison since he was tossed off the Kohl Center court for bumping an official during a timeout in Iowa's loss to Wisconsin last January. While the Hawkeye fans got their crack at booing the Badgers afterwards in Iowa City, Wisconsin fans are no doubt chomping at the bit to goad Iowa's coach into another Frantrum. This border rivalry heated back up in a hurry.
2. Michigan State, March 1 (Sun.)
After such a fabulous finish during the regular season, the Spartans knocked off Wisconsin in the Big Ten Tournament to even the score. It's a crying shame that these two teams are only scheduled to meet once again this year. At least it comes in Madison again, giving the Badgers the upper hand. Though missing a lot of its firepower from last season's 29-win club, I expect Izzo's bunch to be right in the thick of the conference race with Wisconsin on this date as the season barrels toward the finish. These are the games UW has to win to earn back the league crown.
1. Duke, Dec. 3 (Wed.)
No-brainer, right? College basketball's favorite villains return to the Kohl Center, perhaps with Big Ten/ACC Challenge bragging rights in the balance. Coach K has brought in one of the most fearsome freshmen duos ever -- No. 1 overall player Jahlil Okafor at center and the top college-bound point guard in Tyus Jones -- to replace Jabari Parker.
This is also the rubber match between two legendary coaches. Hard to believe, but it's been five years since Trevon Hughes led the Badgers to a home upset back in 2009 to avenge a blowout loss in Durham two years earlier. This year's showdown will likely be a titanic bout between two top 5 teams. When the Blue Devils go on the road in the Challenge, you gots'ta make 'em pay!
Honorable mention: Green Bay (Wed, Nov. 19) will be the return of the "Keifer Sykes" show. The diminutive senior guard went for 32 points against the Badgers in a narrow 69-66 UW-GB loss in Madison last season. News this week of the uncertain future of this series should teach us not to take these annual intrastate games for granted.
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