It's a good time to be a Badger fan. They're in the midst of the greatest start in program history, and it seems like losing a game isn't even a possibility for this team right now. Wisconsin's week has already provided two top-25 wins, as they continue to solidify their spot among the top five in the polls. Following their 95-70 beat down of Illinois, Badger fans have nowhere to look but up, as this season seems to be something special. The players know what they have accomplished, but remain unsatisfied, as Sam Dekker said following Wednesday's victory, "We're nowhere near content with where we are now and now we have an even bigger target on our backs".
The Badgers have faced plenty of good teams so far. Their reasonably difficult schedule this far into the season makes their undefeated record all the more impressive. However, they have yet to face a truly great team. The first two weeks of February will be the key to Wisconsin's season, proving if they really belong in the elite category nationally, as they host Ohio State on Feb. 1 and Michigan State on Feb. 9. If the Badgers can pull of wins in each of these games, the Big Ten title will be theirs to lose. Even if Wisconsin does not enter this part of their schedule with their undefeated streak intact, these three teams have clearly separated themselves from the rest of the pack, and it seems unlikely that any other team will be in serious contention for the conference title.
Ohio State Matchup
The Wisconsin-Ohio State matchup has provided plenty of entertainment, and confusion, within the last few years, as the Buckeyes have won three of the last five matchups, including last years Big Ten Tournament title game. This year's Buckeye team is a bit smaller than previous years. I believe the Badgers have a pretty favorable matchup with this Buckeyes squad.
The matchup between Traevon Jackson and Aaron Craft will be very significant. If Craft can get to Jackson, who is very turnover prone, it will provide a huge defensive boost to Ohio State, while lowering Jackson's confidence. However, if Traevon is able to give a solid, mistake-free effort, that will minimize a big advantage for Ohio State, and will work towards diminishing Craft's impact on the game. The quick and pesky defense by Wisconsin's guards should minimize Craft's impact offensively. However, the leadership and confidence employed by Aaron Craft gives Ohio State the point guard advantage.
Behind the point guards, I believe that the rest of Wisconsin's backcourt will be the key to their success against the Buckeyes. Especially at home, Ben Brust and Josh Gasser have been incredibly solid, and each will need to contribute from the outside offensively. As with any Wisconsin game, good 3-point shooting is key to their offensive flow. This will be especially apparent against Ohio State, as Wisconsin's 3P% is .396 to Ohio State's .342 mark. If the Badgers do not shoot better behind the line than the Buckeyes, it's hard to imagine them winning.
Up front, Wisconsin will be tasked defensively. LaQuinton Ross and Amir Williams pose an offensive threat unlike anything they have seen yet this season. They will try to impose themselves on the Badgers inside, Kaminsky and Dekker will need to be solid and aggressive. Nigel Hayes will certainly have a big role as well, if he can provide strong play offensively and defensively, it will give the Badgers a big boost. I expect both Williams and Kaminsky to score often, as they will provide significant but very different offensive challenges.
A game that comes down to free throws seems to favor Wisconsin, as they make over 73% of their attempts, whereas Ohio State makes under 69%. Especially in the Feb. 1 game at the Kohl Center, I see the Badgers having the overall advantage. Their team defense should frustrate the Buckeyes, who may have no answer for prolific outside shooting by Wisconsin. However, if the Buckeyes bigs are able to pound inside, putting Badger forwards in foul trouble, they could be in trouble.
Michigan State Matchup
The Spartans present a whole new challenge that will really test this Wisconsin team. They are the only Big Ten team to boast a higher 3P% than the Badgers (.405), and outperform them in most statistical categories. They have three players who average over 15 points per game: Gary Harris (17.8), Adreian Payne (16.2) and Keith Appling (15.9). These three players, particularly Harris and Payne, will pose a new threat to Wisconsin.
While watching the MSU-Ohio St. game, all that I could think about was how much the Badgers could struggle against Payne. On multiple plays, he exerted his will against the Buckeye interior defenders, grabbing rebounds in the open and slamming them back with ease. Kaminsky and Hayes will need to constantly recognize his presence and focus on boxing him out to keep him away from the rim. If Kaminsky and Hayes struggle to keep up with Payne, or fall to foul trouble, Michigan State will hold a huge advantage inside.
As for Gary Harris, he presents a playmaking ability that will take a conscious effort by the entire team to contain. He moves very well with and without the ball, and can make shots from anywhere. It will take an effort from Brust or Gasser to chase him around the court, with the rest of the team recognizing his ability and helping out. This is easier said than done, with the skill of the rest of Michigan State's offense.
Once you get past MSU's stars, however, I believe Wisconsin has the advantage. Their style of team basketball and tempo control, especially at home, will give them an advantage in this game. Besides Payne's advantage inside, Michigan State really doesn't have any size advantage over Wisconsin. Brandon Dawson is their next biggest starter (6' 6", 225 lbs.), who will be matched up with Sam Dekker, who should have the athletic advantage. As long as Dekker can keep Dawson from getting too many rebounds, he should be able to go to work in the offensive end. I believe Wisconsin's guards have the advantage because of their commitment to rebounding and defense.
As I am forced to say whenever I talk about this Wisconsin team, the key is successful 3-point shooting, and staying out of foul trouble. If they are able to do this, both of these games should be very competitive. At this point in time, I certainly wouldn't claim that the Badgers would be a big favorite against either of these teams, because they have not faced a similar level of competition thus far, but especially at the Kohl Center the Badgers should feel confident. And there's just something about this Wisconsin Badgers team. As any serious Badger follower will tell you, there is confidence and chemistry surrounding this team that is palpable. The first week or so of February could be one of the biggest conference stretches in Wisconsin history, as the country will look on with excitement to see what they can pull off.