A 12-1 Big Ten record heading into this weekend looks pretty sweet for Wisconsin, which seeks its first regular season title since 2008. The Badgers have proven they are the class of the conference and are entrenched in the fight for a No. 1 seed. But they are far from having the outright Big Ten title all sewn up.
Scuffling at the back end of what has been an advantageous league slate could drop them into a tie with lurkers Michigan State and/or Maryland. Wisconsin plays both teams over the next 10 days as it faces the most grueling five-game stretch of the season.
Looking back, nine of UW's conference wins have come against the bottom half of the league and it's lone loss came to the worst team in the Big Ten. The team's signature conference win so far was its easier-than-it-looked 92-78 demolition of Indiana to start the month. Add a close call against Purdue and a recent win against Illinois and you realize Wisconsin's stiffest competition has been handled inside the friendly confines of the Kohl Center. Back-to-back road wins over Michigan (in overtime) and Iowa, once impressive, are losing their luster daily.
If the Badgers win out, they win the Big Ten by at least three games -- only the third time that would have happened since Bo Ryan entered the league. It's not likely, though, so where is the most probable slip up?
Minnesota (Saturday, Feb. 21)
KenPom says: 93% chance of a UW win
The Gophers are reeling after back-to-back losses in which they've been absolutely shelled from the outside by Indiana and Northwestern. Wisconsin is shooting a respectable 35.1 percent on three-pointers this season, but is shooting 29 percent from distance over its last four games. The Badgers are typically more successful when limiting their number of attempts as well.
We know Minnesota is coming in angry and with nothing to lose. Which one is more likely to bounce back, Wisconsin's three-point shooting or Minnesota's overall competence? As long as you are not superstitious, Saturday's rivalry game should be another home win for Bucky.
At Maryland (Tuesday, Feb. 24)
KenPom says: 70% chance of a UW win
Wisconsin's first trip to College Park, Md. looks like a doozy. The Terrapins have put themselves within at least striking distance of a championship by being nearly untouchable at home (15-1). However, they've eeked out a most of their recent wins and look especially vulnerable after getting crushed on the road by solid conference competition.
Maryland has the right type of pieces, inside and outside, to give UW trouble. Dez Wells has a little D.J. Newbill in him and the Terps have a nice young playmaker in Melo Trimble. They also have a big body to contend with Kaminsky inside and the additional scorers (Trimble, Jake Layman) that Penn State lacks. I see this one as Wisconsin's next loss, but it would be their biggest statement win of the year.
Michigan State (Sunday, Mar. 1)
KenPom says: 85% chance of a UW win
Senior Day. Maybe the return of Traevon Jackson? It could be an emotional setting in Madison.
Tom Izzo's boys did not look like their usual Spartan selves for most of the year, but Michigan State has one of the best outside shooting teams East Lansing has fielded in recent memory. The Spartans looked very impressive in their last two outings and might be rounding into form at the perfect time.
Behind junior Denzel Valentine and seniors Travis Trice and Branden Dawson, MSU has plenty of moxie and this team doesn't fear playing in the Kohl Center. Nor should they -- their seniors are 6-1 lifetime against Wisconsin. But if Wisconsin gets behind and needs to grind one out, no better team to foul than Michigan State, which shoots a wretched 62.5 percent from the line. Expect another close one, but UW puts this one away at the line.
At Minnesota (Thursday, Mar. 5)
KenPom says: 78% chance of a UW win
The Barn can be a cruel place and this will be the Gophers' proverbial Super Bowl this season. Watching UW inbound against a full-court press has been an adventure the last few outings, so the Gophers' ability to apply pressure will be interesting, especially with Jackson's availability and effectiveness still up in the air.
Again, Wisconsin could easily drop any of these final five games. Even a loss to Minnesota would be somewhat understandable after the run Wisconsin has been on. Some people subscribe to the theory that the Badgers need to get the next loss out of their system before the postseason, due to mounting pressure, the law of averages and all that jazz. I don't buy it though. Playing terrible in Minneapolis, or anywhere else, and losing does not magically gift Wisconsin with a better chance to reach the Final Four. Go ahead and win this one too, Bo.
At Ohio State (Sunday, Mar. 8)
KenPom says: 55% chance of a UW win
Everything feels epic about this one. It will mark the fourth time in eight years that Wisconsin has ended either the regular season or the Big Ten tournament facing Ohio State, and like this year, it's usually been televised on CBS.
Wisconsin will get it's first taste of freshman sensation D'Angelo Russell as the Big Ten's two best players finally meet on the court for THE ONLY TIME EVER. Even though Ohio State technically is tied for fifth place in the Big Ten currently, this is a game that many people circled way back in October as one that could decide the championship race. And it still can.
The Buckeyes do almost everything well, although they've struggled when forced to play at a slower pace. Which, come to think of it, could be a major storyline in the finale. Presumably Trae Jackson will have returned by this time, perhaps even reinserted as a starter. Could it be? Jackson's reinfusion of grit and defense playing contrast to Bronson Koenig's go-go-go Badgers, gives his squad the edge against his home state school and father's alma mater? Ah, the perfect Buckeye foil.
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Honestly, I'm expecting a 3-2 finish for Wisconsin given the difficulty of the remaining schedule and I'd be happy with that undisputed crown obviously. Wisconsin is flawed defensively, growing a little lippy and entitled with the refs, and feeling weary thanks to a shortened and unproductive bench.
Yet these Badgers are truly special and until a final horn shows me otherwise, the winning streak must go on!
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