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For Badger basketball, all goals remain within reach

Despite a tough loss to second-place Maryland, a Big Ten title and deep tourney run are still within grasp.

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

So, was Tuesday night in College Park, Md., the "adversity" Wisconsin "needed" to be "fully prepared" to make it run for all the marbles come March and April?

I say no. Actually winning the game would have been better, but opinions will vary. One thing’s for sure, head coach Bo Ryan will need to get some things figured out before NCAA tournament bullets start to fly.

The end result of Wisconsin’s 59-53 loss was just that -– a road conference loss to a solid team, and one that is great at home. The media have Maryland as the 14th best team in the country. Although they’ve lost four Big Ten road games -- one a tough one to a decent Illinois team and the other three blowouts to upper-half teams Indiana, Ohio State and Iowa -- the Terrapins are now 17-1 at home, with that loss coming to No. 2 Virginia. No need for the court rush by Maryland fans, but definitely no need for the Badgers to hang their heads too low.

Rather, Wisconsin needs to figure out how to deal defensively with top-tier guards playing with teams that can spread the floor. The Badgers had virtually no answer for Dez Wells (26 points, 7-for-7 on FTs) most of the game or for freshman Melo Trimble (16 points) in the last five minutes. Should Gasser and Koenig have been used more effectively? How much was Traevon Jackson missed in this context?

Offensively, Wisconsin found a rhythm to begin the second half when Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker were more aggressive and successful inside. In the first half, Wisconsin too often settled for long-range jumpers, not all of which were bad shots, and too often with an appreciable chunk of shot clock still available. The best way to get out of slump may be to keep shooting, but after missing 11 consecutive 3-point attempts, it might have been time to try something else.

To make matters worse, the shots were indeed falling for Maryland, especially in the first half. The teams eventually evened out percentage-wise, which is to be expected from this edition of Wisconsin, but it would have been nice if the run on which the Badgers began the second half would have been with them down by two, or heck, even up a few. On this night, the hole they dug for themselves was just too deep.

The last real black mark on tonight’s performance was inked at the free throw line. It’s tough to win games on the road against good (much less great) teams going 7-for-12. What’s worse is that the damage was done exclusively by Kaminsky (4-for-7) and Nigel Hayes (3-for-5). Either others need to get to the line and convert, or those two critical post players need to hit their stride from the stripe in short order.

Do this team’s goals remain in play? It could have clinched a share of a regular season conference title, but it still can with a win against Michigan State at the Kohl Center on Sunday. A win then, coupled with at least one more (either at Minnesota on March 5 or at Ohio State on March 8) gets Wisconsin its first outright title since 2008.

Tuesday’s loss probably removes the Badgers from consideration for a 1-seed, although that would have been somewhat of a long shot even with a win, arguments over Gonzaga’s much weaker schedule notwithstanding. Wisconsin isn’t at all likely, however, to drop below the 2-seed line at this point. The major disadvantage here is that the possibility of meeting Kentucky before the Final Four is much more real – but then again, being the last team standing is just as likely as taking down Big Blue anyway. So, yes, the goals are definitely within reach.

Wisconsin lost a game for the first time in 11 outings. Its 25-3 record still places it very comfortably among program bests as February turns to March. There were also plenty of times on Tuesday when the Badgers looked like the dominant team fans have watched so many times this year (Kaminsky, Dekker, and Koenig all had their moments); the problem is just that when they got close, Maryland was able to respond.

This team is still an all-time great. The roster is set to return to full strength with Jackson returning when the doctors say he can, which should be before the Big Ten tournament. As was the case with Melvin Gordon this season, there has to be at least some kicking back and watching this particular generational greatness.

At least some. There’s been a feeling that the 2014 season never truly ended, it just went on break until two weeks before Thanksgiving. But then Duke happened. Eight more wins and a minor injury to Kaminsky later, Rutgers happened. The starting point guard was also lost in that game, but the primary back-up more than picked up the slack and here the Badgers were, 10 wins later. Answer the questions raised on Tuesday night, and this loss will too be just another bump in the road on the way to the Big Dance – and that, of course, is what everyone’s really been waiting for.

Bonus Round

So the Big Ten is exploring freshman ineligibility for football and basketball. Reeks of paternalism ("we know what’s best for these kids!"), hypocrisy ("we know you provide us the basically free labor that furnishes the millions we make, but we’re going to limit your options even more!"), professed care ("it’s about graduation rates!") and blindness ("we put out a great product"!). Sounds like a winner.

Let’s hope the powers that be come to their senses and keep the idea on the shelf where it belongs.