As Nigel Hayes and Ethan Happ were leading Wisconsin to a resilient victory in Syracuse, you may have caught a glimpse of a team ready to turn a corner.
Consider the odds Wisconsin overcame. A team that turns the ball over 20 times shouldn't win on the road. A team that shoots 5-of-18 on three-pointers shouldn't upset the No. 14 team in the country either.
But Wisconsin did. The Badgers were just barely opportunistic enough. They made clutch free throws, rebounded the ball as if possessed and held the Orange to 35.7 percent shooting. As a result, UW earned the right to take a deep sigh of relief.
Now, full of confidence and with a growing sense of identity, this Wisconsin team has its chance to build momentum as it completes the non-conference slate heading into a huge Big Ten opener versus Purdue. Some of the Badgers' shortcomings will be season-long issues. Others can be corrected. The task begins Saturday against Temple with a few baby steps.
On Wednesday alone, Syracuse blocked a pair of Khalil Iverson's dunk attempts, Ethan Happ's fancy ways resulted in some layups rimming out and Charlie Thomas missed all four of his shots. There have been so many missed opportunities around the basket throughout the season, not just in the close call in Syracuse.
Up until now, most of it could be shrugged off as youthful inexperience by some of the aforementioned players. With UW's increased reliance on put backs and interior offense this season, though, the bunnies have to start going down before the Badgers can be considered dangerous on that end of the court.
Temple is a poor defensive rebounding team, so Happ and company should have extensive chances to right this wrong against the Owls. Understanding when to pump fake or when to go up strongly and quickly would benefit the young Badgers. Doing it right this weekend could result in a lot of free throws against a few of Temple's foul-prone bigs.
Take better care of the ball
Because Wisconsin lost so many key contributors from last season, this year's group has appeared more disjointed than most Badger squads. An error like Hayes' toss out of bounds after a late defensive rebound smacks of the team not being on the same page at crucial moments. The muscle memory isn't there yet, further evidenced by UW averaging over 11 turnovers per game. Wisconsin averaged 7.7 turnovers the previous two seasons.
The upside is that the core rotation is only going to get more cohesive playing together each week, hopefully able to turn weaknesses into strengths as the comfort level rises. Bo Ryan tightening up the rotation will only aid in this endeavor. He played the same seven players for all but four minutes total over the past two games.
While Temple is not a real threat to force opponents into many turnovers, we've seen the unforced nature of many of these Badger miscues. From Happ's traveling problems around the hoop to errant passes from upperclassmen, this issue is something I know Ryan won't address lightly.
Continue playing lock-down defense
The Badgers are fresh off of their best defensive performance of the season without a doubt. The effort was there all night and it really started on the perimeter, spearheaded by Zak Showalter. It remains to be seen whether Wisconsin solved it's problems defending three-pointers, but the Orange sank just 29 percent of them on Wednesday and made only one field goal in overtime.
Temple has a more balanced offensive approach. Guard Quenton DeCosey leads the Owls with 15.5 points per game and also in field goal percentage (50.5). If Showalter and Bronson Koenig can increasingly limit points in the paint via penetration, it will make the forwards' jobs that much easier. Happ and Vitto Brown registered three blocks apiece against the 'Cuse, showing some good on-ball timing and tenacity. Those attributes will be tested both by Temple and Marquette coming up soon.
On switches, Showalter won't be able to shut down the beefier Temple bigs like he did to Syracuse freshman Tyler Lydon. That makes the rotations and help defense down low more important. In general, UW's ball-screen defense took a huge step forward in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge triumph.