Wisconsin is a good basketball team. After beating Saint Louis in the Cancun Challenge Tuesday night, they became the first Bo Ryan-coached Badgers team to start the season 7-0. And, after defeating Bob Huggins's West Virginia Mountaineers 70-63 to win the early-season tournament last night, the Badgers are a nice and pretty 8-0.
They're ranked 10th in the AP poll, and 11th in the USA Today/Coaches poll. They are 13th in Ken Pomeroy's kenpom.com rankings, and by many objective and subjective measures, they back up my first comment: the Badgers are good at basketball. Their first eight wins include five KenPom top-100 teams, and two of the top 25 (Florida and Saint Louis at 7 and 21, respectively). They've only played four home games, which is the impressive part. They just finished a stretch where they played five games in nine days. They had their seven-foot junior forward set the school record for points in a game. But what do we really know about this team? Here are five takeaways from their unblemished November record.
#1 Their strength is all in the offense.
If you had the pleasure of watching Wisconsin basketball last year, you noticed that in (basically) every game, there was a seven-to-ten minute stretch where they would score like two points. And usually, either during or around that time, their opponent would do the same as well. The game probably ended in some ugly mid-50s score, and that doesn't even do it justice. Of course, that was a feature of the Badgers' teams the past several seasons. This one? Not so much. They rank 10th in KenPom's Adjusted Offensive Efficiency rating at a balmy 116.0, which reflect the estimated points per possession Wisconsin would score against the average D-1 basketball team. They've scored at least 80 points in three of their eight games this year, which they only achieved five times last year. They have five players averaging at least ten points per game, which hasn't happened since the 2002-03 season. So yeah, they're doing okay offensively.
#2 Frank Kaminsky is the breakout star.
We probably won't remember much about Frank Kaminsky in five years, but we will remember the night he lead off the 10pm SportsCenter. He shot a school-record 43 points that night, and it took a couple late-game substitutions to get him those points (although, to defend Bo, he had no idea he was that close). He's leading the team right now with 15.6 points per game (obviously buoyed by 43, but would still be over 10ppg without it). He's got a triple-slash of .578/.380/.750, which leads to an effective field goal percentage of 65.1%, top-100 in the nation (among qualified players). He earned his first Big Ten player of the week honors. He's a cult favorite of the students, and those "Frank the Tank" chants ring out throughout the Kohl Center after big moments. It's a rite of passage of Wisconsin big men; they wait in the wings their first couple seasons, and then BAM they break out and do everything Bo looks for. Frank-ly, this shouldn't have been a surprise to anyone.
#3 The Freshmen can play.
The Badgers have essentially run a nine-man rotation this year: Ben Brust, Josh Gasser, Kaminsky, Sam Dekker and Traevon Jackson start while George Marshall, Duje Dukan, Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes come off the bench. As a result of Marshall's concussion he suffered in practice, Bo has simply shifted his minutes to his freshmen, and they do wonders with it. Nigel Hayes is averaging around 15 minutes a game, but he's responded to those minutes in a way that isn't quite reflected in the box scores. He's got great movement and vision of the court for a freshman, but he's struggling from the charity stripe (only 10 for 21 so far), and only .500 from inside the arc (13 of 26). But everyone I've talked to, whether it be on Twitter or when I've attended the games, likes the kid a lot. And then there's Bronson Koenig, who really doesn't do much of anything, except for miss baskets. Small sample size and all those caveats, but he has an eFG% of 75% right now. He's 6-9 from 2-point land and 5-9 behind the arc. That's okay. He doesn't play often and doesn't see the ball in a lot of possessions (13 minutes per game and a 11.6 usage rate). But he's got some good ball handling. I like the kid.
#4 Wisconsin is arguably the closest challenger to Michigan State right now.
I know, I know, people are going to likely read into this that Wisconsin is the second-best team in the B1G right now. They'd be correct. Michigan is having a youth problem, Indiana is having a reloading problem, Iowa is having a-Well, it's Iowa. I don't care if they're ranked, I don't believe in Iowa. They're a poor man's Wisconsin, and that's not the best thing to be. And then there's Ohio State, which has the best adjusted defense rating in the country (THANKS MARQUETTE). But who have they played, Marquette? Marquette's a bad basketball team. They can't really score points, or play good defense, or really do anything you have to do in order to be a good basketball team. Props to the Buckeyes for going to Milwaukee to play them, but when that's your best win, you haven't really beaten anyone yet. So forgive me when I say that Wisconsin is the second best B1G team right now. I reflect that sentiment in the OTE/BTP power poll, where I've ranked Wisconsin ahead of Ohio State all season. Okay, enough about Ohio State and Marquette. But yeah, I think Wisconsin's good.
#5 This is still a plodding Wisconsin team.
Wisconsin may be playing faster this year (65.8 possessions/game compared to 64.3 through 8 games last year), but they're still not fast. They rank 301st in adjusted tempo, which is pretty slow. The average pace so far this year is a touch over 69 possessions per game, and Wisconsin doesn't exactly project to get a lot faster come conference play in January. Sure, their games against Iowa and Indiana are projected to be "barnburners," but this is the Big Ten. Wisconsin gets a lot of attention (although concentrated in spurts because we're irrelevant the rest of the season) from national media types because of Bo Ryan's slow offense, and that never-worse-than-fourth stat that I love so much (THANKS MICHIGAN). A lot of writers thought that Wisconsin would suffer this year with the increased emphasis on cutting down hand checking and charge-taking, but here they are, 8-0. And really, at the end of the day, that's all that matters. On Wisconsin, y'all.