Each preseason, the rhetoric surrounding Wisconsin basketball is the same. Everyone knows the Badgers will be good, but no one thinks they will be great. We always hear about Bo Ryan's streak of top four finishes in the Big Ten, and most people pick them to finish somewhere between third and fifth in the conference. The Badgers are always preliminarily ranked somewhere between 15 and 25 (in reverse order, starting with this season, they were ranked 20th, 23rd, 15th, and 24th in the AP Preseason Rankings).
This year the predictions were very similar, but I don't think anyone expected this Wisconsin team would have had this much early season success. Following Wednesday's victory over UW-Milwaukee, the Badgers are 11-0, and have matched the best start to a season in modern program history. They also moved into the AP top five for the first time since the 2006-2007 season. This Badgers team has faced one of the toughest schedules in the country, but they have adapted their game accordingly and have made it through so far unscathed.
The reason this team has yet to lose is because of the flexibility and adaptability of the team as a whole. Typically, Bo Ryan's teams have an excellent ability to control the tempo of a game through persistent defense, good outside shooting, and methodical offensive tempo. However, the classic Wisconsin team was very prone to exploitation, when facing a fast and athletic opponent, or on a night when the 3-point shooting goes cold. However, this year seems to be different. This team has already shown that it can win in different ways, by adapting to the play of their opponent and taking what is given to them. Different players have stepped up in various ways, and as a whole, this team has been unstoppable.
The overall success starts with outstanding shooting, especially from outside. Their 3P% is .392, the best of all Big Ten teams so far. Except for Nigel Hayes, every player who has received significant playing time has shown that they have the ability to make shots from behind the line. This is a dangerous tool for the offense, stretching out defenses as anyone can get open and make a shot from the outside.
They have become much more efficient, scoring an estimated 113.8 points per 100 possessions, compared to 104.1 at the end of last season, per Ken Pomeroy. It is rare for a Bo Ryan team to eclipse 80 points, but the Badgers have already done so three times this season.
Additionally, as the college basketball nation has noticed, they have shown the ability to their tempo, at least slightly negating the classic boring Bo Ryan basketball label. A deep group of experienced guards combined with the playmaking abilities of Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky have already made plenty of highlights.
However, they are still able to dominate a slow paced, physically demanding grind-it-out game, which they showed in a 48-38 victory at Virginia.
As Mark Titus of Grantland notices, Wisconsin has won games this season by scoring in the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and 100s. The versatility of this team, in which each player on the court is expected to score, rebound, and play physical makes them impossible to prepare for and match up against. The chemistry and all-in approach that this team takes towards every aspect of this game has brought unprecedented success, and they have been a whole lot of fun to watch.
The emergence of Frank has undoubtedly been the biggest surprise for this team, and he has been the key to their success. Kaminsky is averaging 14.6 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks in 28.1 minutes per game. He is shooting .554 from the field, which is fourth best of all big ten players so far. He is shooting .419 from 3-point range, good for second best on the team. This is clearly a huge advantage, as this dual threat jump-started Frank's season with a 43 point performance against North Dakota earlier this year. You can see all 43 of his points here.
Since then, teams have taken notice of Kaminsky, and have focused their attention on stopping him. This hasn't slowed him down though, as he has scored in double figures in all but one game (when he had nine) since then. The attention he has received has only made it easier for the rest of the team to get space and open looks. His three point game gives him opportunities to drive that other big men simply do not have. He is able to effectively use ball fakes outside the line to get an opponent out too far and open up a lane, and then he drives to the rim. "There's lanes to go there and I feel more comfortable with the ball in my hands than in past years," Kaminsky said. "It is nice to be able to do things like that for this team." His new confidence is having a huge effect in every aspect of his game.
Going into the season, Kaminsky's role inside was one of the biggest question marks facing this team. He was not a major factor on last year's team, never obtaining significant playing time or statistics. At 6' 11" and 234 lbs. he is not a monster for his height, but he has been able to make up for it with quickness and athleticism. He will have to continue to be effective against bruising Big Ten forwards once conference play begins. However, if Frank can continue his offensive output, he certainly has All-Big Ten potential.
Sam Dekker is the glue that keeps this team together. He has proven to be incredibly consistent offensively and defensively, in only his sophomore year. In 30.4 minutes per game, Dekker is averaging 14.4 points, and 5.9 rebounds per game, on .486 shooting. He may not yet be the 20-per-game scorer that many Badger fans hope he will blossom in to, but right now he is doing all that this team needs him to, especially scoring wise.
The biggest knock on Dekker is his occasional timidness and lack of aggression around the rim. He knows this, and is adamant on fixing it, and being more of a force on the glass. Ever since the St. Louis game, in which Dekker was mostly manhandled around the hoop, he has focused on staying aggressive and strong. That game provided plenty of motivation, as he has followed it up with two double-doubles in the last four games. Says Dekker, "I can't accept getting four or five rebounds. I am too long and too active to have that happen. I've got to keep crashing the glass. That helps offensive and defensively." Come conference play, rebounds are going to be increasingly hard to come by for the Badgers, and Dekker must step up for the team.
The only statistical problem with Dekker's game is his free throw shooting. He is shooting only 60% from the line on the year. As someone who is certainly going to have the ball in his hands in key moments of any game, Badger fans would really like this number to be higher. He shot 69% from the line last year, which would be a more acceptable number for a player of his caliber. If he can turn in to an effective free throw shooter, his offensive game will be rounded out, and his scoring numbers could go up fairly significantly.
It's been all positive for Dekker and the team, who have developed great chemistry to this point. Throughout the season, he has been excited and optimistic about the prospects for this team. Following the Marquette game, he said, "I think we expected this, we have a lot of work to do but I think we're happy with where we're at at this point." Dekker is the cornerstone of a team that has as high of aspirations and confidence as any team in the country right now.
Brust has definitely been Wisconsin's most consistent player this year, and he rarely ever leaves the court. Averaging 35 minutes per game, he scores in double figures nearly every game, averaging 12.0 points. He is a scrappy rebounder and defender, hauling in 5.4 rebounds per game, while flying around the court after loose balls. He definitely seems to have a little bit of Mike Bruesewitz in him.
Brust is known around the country for his 3-point shooting proficiency, and the willingness to shoot from anywhere on the court. He has been an incredibly consistent threat from downtown, hitting 3-pointers at a .426 clip. On only three occasions this season has he attempted less than six 3's, and only three times has he failed to score in double figures. Brust has made at least two 3-pointers in each game this season, except for the game against St. Louis, in which he wen 0-3 from behind the arc.
At this point, Brust is one of the least talked about players on the team, but his play is truly invaluable in this system. He has played over 30 minutes in every game this season, and he can do it all. He is more than just a spot up sharpshooter, he has developed an excellent driving ability, and plays much bigger than his height around the rim. If Brust was eliminated for the Badgers' equation, there would be a huge hole in all aspects of the game. He literally eats minutes, can score from anywhere, and has a wizard-like ability to pull in rebounds, for a player with a 6' 1", 196 lbs. frame. He has also made 21/22 free throw attempts on the season.
Traevon Jackson fits in to the under-appreciated guard category, but his consistency and leadership have played a huge role for this team. He serves as a catalyst, posting 11.3 minutes, 5.0 rebounds, and 4.7 assists per game so far. He has developed into a lockdown defender, playing strong defense against opposing point guards.
Last season, Badger fans were often frustrated with Jackson's turnovers and stagnation, but he seems to have largely fixed this problem this year. He averages 1.9 turnovers per game, which is acceptable for a starting point guard. He did show signs of his former self, such as in his five turnover performance against Florida. However, he proved that he can still make up for his mistakes with a clutch shot at the end, nailing a two-point jumper to seal the game with only seconds left. I would be very surprised if we don't see Jackson hit another huge shot at the end of a game this season.
Also, although it is possible that it was Jackson's first dunk as a Badger, he threw down on UW-Milwaukee on Wednesday.
His confidence and aggressiveness has manifested in various ways this season, and he will be a key factor down the stretch.
Oh, how Badger fans missed Gasser. He may not be the flashiest player or particularly prolific at any one aspect, but he simply does everything well. The fact that he has been able to come back from such a debilitating injury and be a significant factor all around is pretty incredible, as he has been on the floor for at least 29 minutes in each game.
He has mostly served as a spot up 3-point shooter, as over 50% of his shots taken have came from 3-point range (hoop-math.com). This is mostly because he has been so consistent from deep, shooting with a .414 percentage from behind the arc and .491 overall.
He has developed a good ability to get to the rim as well, and I predict as he continues to regain confidence and aggressiveness, he will continue to drive and get baskets inside. According to hoop-math.com, his FG% of shots taken at the rim is 73.7%, with only 14.3% of those baskets registering an assist to a teammate. Especially for someone coming off a knee injury, this is surprising, but encouraging. He is able to get to the interior on his own, and he scores once he is there. He easily has the least amount of field goals attempted of all Wisconsin starters, but I think his role in the offense will only increase come conference play. The biggest thing he brings to this team, however, is plain toughness. He sets a fantastic example, as recognized by Bo Ryan, who attributes Wisconsin's physical dominance over Marquette to Gasser.
The only three players who have received sustained and significant playing time off the bench are Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig, and Duje Dukan. This fact seems to be the biggest weakness for this team, that they really only have three bench players capable of contributing to the team. It will be interesting to see if the Badgers suffer once they get into the conference grind, because of foul trouble or an injury.
the heralded freshman guard out of St. Thomas Aquanis, has been a pleasant addition to the Wisconsin backcourt. He has filled in for all of the starting guards, and has played with a confidence and poise that allows for him to get real playing time in Bo Ryan's system. Any time a freshman receives outspoken praise from Ryan, we all should take notice.
The Badgers will need Koenig to step up as the season wears on, as they employ mostly three guard sets to be effective. The starting guards likely will not be able to continue with their amount of playing time throughout conference play. All Koenig needs to do is play solid, while minimizing mistakes, and he will be a big factor throughout the season.
Another freshman playing a big role off the bench, Hayes has showed signs of strength and effectiveness as a replacement forward, but certainly needs to gain some confidence in his play. Like Koenig, he is playing about 15 minutes per game, and he has averaged 4.0 points per game. He is an athletic monster at 6' 7", 250 lbs. and has potential to be a fantastic forward for Bo Ryan. While he doesn't shoot much when he plays, he has been effective on shots taken, with a .476 FG%. What the Badgers really need from Hayes, however, is to be able to come in to the game either as a third forward, or in replacement of Kaminsky or Dekker, and be a force inside. He clearly has the size and strength to be effective around the hoop, he just needs to recognize this and play with confidence. If he is unable to do so, the Badgers could be facing some tough situations if Kaminsky gets in foul trouble during Big Ten play.
Dukan, who sat out last season due to an illness, came out on a mission, scoring 15 points in 21 minutes in Wisconsin's win over St. Johns on their opening night. Since then, Dukan has been mildly effective when he has gotten the opportunity to play, but he has only seen 10+ minutes in five of Wisconsin's games. That being said, he has scored 3.5 points per game and averages 2.1 rebounds per game. As playing time between the main eight players gets more spread out, he will likely be called on for more minutes. If he is able to show the scoring ability like he did in Wisconsin's first game, Bo Ryan will have no choice but to give him playing time.
There's nobody playing better than Wisconsin right now. Although they have shown instances of stagnation, or times when they were unable to stomp teams out of the game in the 2nd half, they have gotten it done every time. However, they have yet to face a team with one or two prolific scorers, who pose a constant offensive threat. Games against the top Big Ten teams will show if this team is really top five worthy.
The sky really is the limit for this team. There is no reason to believe that they cannot beat anyone in the country. The best case scenario for this team would be approaching a 30 win season, surviving the Big Ten with only a few losses, and looking at the first #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament in school history, with an aim for Bo Ryan's first Final Four appearance.
The pessimistic view is that the Badgers have only had this significant success because of unsustainable shooting, and playing top teams when they're undermanned. It is true that both Florida and Marquette were without all of their players due to injuries or suspensions when Wisconsin faced them, but I see no evidence that shows that their offensive production is unsustainable. The versatility of this team is incredibly unique, and presents a huge challenge to any opponent. There is no one scheme or strategy that will clearly be an effective defense against the Badgers.
At this point, I am not yet convinced that this is truly a top five team. Yes, going undefeated with their schedule so far almost requires that they be placed near the top of the country, but I need to see the Badgers face more kinds of adversity before I can consider them a truly elite team. Their performance with key players in foul trouble, or against superstar opponents will be the true test for me. However, regardless of their opponent, it would be hard for me to pick any team against Wisconsin right now. There just seems to be something about this team's chemistry that differentiates them from other Wisconsin teams. They all have bought into the system, and led by example.
My prediction: Wisconsin will be competing for the top spot in the Big Ten throughout the season. They have a very favorable schedule, as they play Ohio State and Michigan State only once each, with both games in Madison during the first two weeks of February (2/1 and 2/9, respectively). If they are able to win both of these games, and make it through the rest of their schedule with three losses or less, I predict that they will end the season as Big Ten champions. Some games that they will need to watch out for: 1/22 at Minnesota, who always seems to play their hardest basketball against their rival Badgers; 2/4 at Illinois, this game falls directly in between the Ohio St. and Michigan St. game, and Illinois looks like an improved and skilled team this year; 2/22 at Iowa, who has an improved team and Wisconsin is 1-3 against in their last four meetings.
For Wisconsin sports fans, it has been a bit of a frustrating year. Aaron Rodgers is out, and Wisconsin football seems to have let a possibly outstanding season slip away. Luckily, Badger Basketball has been the remedy. It's been an amazing and unexpected start to the season, and if they are able to keep the streak going through the soft ending to their conference season, it's entirely possible that the Big Ten will have three top five teams to start conference play. The boys are having fun, and we are having a whole lot of fun watching them.