It’s almost tournament time, but it’s still yet to be determined if the Badgers will be invited to the dance.
I’ll be completely honest right off the bat. I think Wisconsin’s best-case scenario is playing in an 11-seed play-in game. Obviously, a lot can change between now and the end of the year, but at this current point in time, that’s how I see it.
Two months ago, it would’ve been really hard to imagine this year’s team in this spot. Wisconsin started the year 13-2, ranked right in the middle of the AP Top 25, and had multiple Q1 wins on their resume before conference play really got underway. One of those losses was by one point in overtime to Kansas, who is projected to be a 1-seed come tournament time. If that game ends in a win, which it should’ve… twice, the Badgers would be firmly locked into the tournament even with a rough conference performance.
Despite the loss to Kansas, the Badgers were 11-2 with wins over USC, Maryland, Marquette, and Iowa. And if you would’ve told me that freshman Connor Essegian was going to average just under 13 points the rest of the way, I would’ve told you I’ll see you in March. But as we know, things don’t always go according to plan.
Tyler Wahl got hurt, the Badgers lost six of seven, blew a 17-point second-half lead at Nebraska, lost two games by a combined five points to Northwestern, crumbled late at home versus Rutgers, and are now fighting for their lives every time they step onto the floor.
Thankfully, the Badgers have two big opportunities to boost their resume.
Deliver a signature win
Beat Purdue. It’s really simple. If you want to make the tournament and not be sitting on the edge of your seat on Selection Sunday, you have to beat the Boilermakers. Purdue has been one of the best teams in college basketball all season long, anchored by National Player of the Year favorite Zach Edey. They’re currently 24-4 and ranked as the No. 5 team in the country after holding the No. 1 spot for a large chunk of the year.
As previously mentioned, the Badgers missed an opportunity to pick up a marquee win earlier this year versus Kansas. This is their shot to boost their resume and give the committee that “signature win” that we tend to hear about when it comes to differentiating teams that are on the bubble. Wisconsin’s best win to date is Marquette, which continues to look better and better by the day. Add Purdue to that resume, and I have to think that you’re in the tournament.
The Badgers have taken three of the last four matchups between the two teams including last season’s thriller that ended in Chucky Hepburn sending the Kohl Center into a frenzy. This year’s matchup will feature two very different teams, as Jaden Ivey and Johnny Davis have headed off to the league. After last year’s game, Zach Edey made some comments about the way it ended, clearly unhappy and noting that Chucky’s game winner was “so far off that it went in”.
He’ll be playing with a chip on his shoulder and it’s going to be up to Gard to figure out how to slow him down. It’s going to be a dogfight and the Badgers better hope they come out victorious.
The most straightforward way that the Badgers get into the tournament is to make a run and win the Big Ten tourney. With three games to play, the Badgers currently hold an 8-9 conference record and should finish somewhere between the eight and eleven seed. Given that heading into conference play the Badgers were projected to finish the year within that top tier of teams (Purdue, Indiana, Illinois), this is a pretty tough pill to swallow.
Unfortunately, the Big Ten tournament hasn’t been too friendly to Greg Gard’s Wisconsin teams. In five of seven tournaments, the Badgers have failed to reach at least the semi-final. In those seven years, they’ve appeared in the championship game once, as the 2-seed in 2017. Despite being heavy favorites, they would lose that game to 8-seed Michigan, 71-56.
I will say one thing. There is something about teams that go into conference tournaments knowing their only way to keep their season alive is to win it all. Look no further than to last year’s ACC Tournament, which saw 7-seed Virginia Tech take down Notre Dame (2-seed), North Carolina (3-seed) and Duke (1-seed) to punch their ticket to the dance. I’m not saying it will happen, but there’s always a shot.
Currently, bracket expert Joe Lunardi has Wisconsin listed as one of his “Last Four In”, placing them in an 11-seed play-in game. A loss to Purdue, who he has listed as a 1-seed, should not move Wisconsin off of that line. If they find a way to win the game, they’re in the tournament, assuming they do not drop either remaining game on their schedule. If you remember anything about last year (Nebraska), taking care of the easy ones is usually harder than it should be.
So, here’s the recipe. Take care of business in Ann Arbor on Sunday, play the best 40-minutes of the year at home versus Purdue, win the Border-Battle plus a conference tournament game or two.
Sounds pretty simple.