The 2015-16 college basketball season is quickly approaching and the Badgers kicked off their year with a preseason win (insert score) against UW-River Falls last night at the Kohl Center. Back in September, B5Q's Reed Wallach previewed five of Wisconsin’s most anticipated games of the 2015-16 schedule. But as is the case every year in the Big Ten, Wisconsin has a number of under-the-radar matchups that could prove to be immensely important for their finish in the Big Ten as well as their NCAA seeding.
Here are the top five under-the-radar games for the Badgers this season.
1. Georgetown, at Madison Square Garden, Nov. 20
The Badgers take on Georgetown in the 2K Classic semifinals in New York City at MSG for a chance to play the winner of Duke/VCU. The Hoyas, a team that nearly beat the Badgers a year ago in the Bahamas (falling short, 68-65), present the first real test for this new look Wisconsin team. Junior guard D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, a first-team all Big East selection a year ago, will challenge the Badgers' backcourt, especially with the graduation of last year’s lock-down perimeter defender Josh Gasser. Whether Bronson Koenig, Zak Showalter or even Jordan Hill spend time guarding Smith-Rivera, the Badgers will need a team effort in order to slow him down. This game is equally important because a win gives Wisconsin a better chance to play Duke and the opportunity to impress the NCAA tournament selection committee early on in the season.
2. Michigan State, home, Jan. 17
Report Card: Badgers debut with exhibition rout
The tests have come back and the grades are mostly favorable for the Badgers after their exhibition win. No surprise here: Ethan Happ leads the way.
We will learn a lot about this Wisconsin team after early January games versus Indiana and Maryland, but arguably a more crucial game falls on Jan. 17 against the Spartans. The Badgers very easily could go 0-2 in the games against Indiana and Maryland, which makes getting a win against a likely top-25 Michigan State team even more important. With tough road matchups at the latter end of the schedule, the Badgers need to take advantage of every home game against ranked teams. The Spartans lost both Travis Trice and Branden Dawson from last year’s Final Four team, but Denzel Valentine will be a Big Ten Player of the Year candidate. Gavin Schilling is also poised to improve after a solid sophomore campaign. Tom Izzo’s physical style of play will test Wisconsin’s young frontline and should be a good barometer to see if the Badgers have enough horses up front to ultimately finish in the top four of the Big Ten again.
3. Ohio State, home, Feb. 4
Another crucial matchup comes in early February, when the Ohio State Buckeyes visit the Kohl Center. The Buckeyes are extremely young this year, but with a stellar recruiting class and returnees Marc Loving and Jae’Sean Tate back in the fold, Thad Matta’s squad will not be an easy out. I could see Ohio State finishing anywhere between fourth and ninth in the Big Ten, right around where Wisconsin is projected to finish. Beating the Buckeyes could prove to be crucial come March when the Big Ten race will likely be very closely contested. Wisconsin cannot afford to lose many home games this year, with a brutal road slate that includes Maryland, Indiana, Purdue, Michigan State, and Iowa. Look for Koenig to have a huge game against a young OSU backcourt and for Wisconsin to once again become battle-tested up front.
4. Iowa, road, Feb. 24
In late February the Badgers travel to Iowa City to take on the Hawkeyes in a game that could have huge implications for seeding in the Big Ten tournament. Both the Hawkeyes and Badgers figure to be among a handful of teams including Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan that will be fighting to earn a first-round bye in the tournament. Carver-Hawkeye Arena is always a difficult place to play and a loss could put Bo Ryan’s 14-year streak of finishing in the top four slots of the Big Ten in jeopardy. Seven-footer Adam Woodbury and Wisconsin fan-favorite Jarred Uthoff will test Ethan Happ, Vitto Brown, and whomever else emerges up front for the Badgers.
5. Purdue, road, March 5
The final game of the conference schedule could end up being Wisconsin’s most important. Purdue bookends Wisconsin’s schedule, with the Badgers opening up conference play against them on December 29 at the Kohl Center. This unique scheduling quirk will give fans the chance to see just how much the Badgers have improved over the course of the season. The Boilermakers are one of the favorites to win the Big Ten this year and could very well be ranked in the top 15 come March 5. Purdue boasts the Big Ten’s most physical and talented front line, lead by second team all-Big Ten center AJ Hammons and seven-footer Isaac Haas. The wildcard is forward Caleb Swanigan, a top-20 recruit who could be coming into his own this late in the season. This game will be important in seeing how much progress young big men Happ, Brown, and Charlie Thomas have made over the course of the season and whether they are ready to make noise in the postseason. We’ve seen teams which finish hot are rewarded with higher seeds in the NCAA tournament. If Wisconsin can notch another road win versus a likely top-25 team, it could end up being the difference in moving up a seed line or two.