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Is Wisconsin Still a Final Four Contender?

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The Badgers have only had one loss this year, but it was to a fellow Final Four contender. Does Wisconsin have what it takes to make it back?

Jeff Gross/Getty Images

It is final exam season in Madison, Wisconsin currently and even the top-ranked hoops team has to focus on playing school for the week. The Badgers have off until their game against Cal on the 22nd, so now is as good a time as any to take stock of the first third of the basketball season and see if Wisconsin is still on track to make a return trip to the Final Four. We will compare last year's team to this year's team in four major categories: record, star player performance, everybody else's performance, and overall team performance. There will be stats and scathing criticisms about whether or not Sam Dekker should have played on his hurt ankle, so please, read on!

Record

The Badgers came into the season with astronomical expectations. They were higher than any season I can remember, and on the internet I'm ancient. Last season Wisconsin went undefeated through the non-conference portion of the schedule, while this year (with two non-con games left) the Badgers sit at 10-1. While one loss is certainly worse than zero losses, losing to Duke this year is a thing that will happen to a lot of teams. Last year's team beat a number of NCAA Tournament bound teams including Florida, Virginia, Saint Louis, UW-Milwaukee, and Eastern Kentucky in non-conference play. This year's team has beaten four top-100 teams (according to KenPom): Georgetown, Oklahoma, UW-Green Bay, and Boise State. And the Badgers have the possibility of getting two more top-100 wins against Cal (55th) and Buffalo (98th) moving forward.

I guess last year's team will get the slight edge in record, but if Nicholls State comes out of nowhere to win the Southland Conference I reserve the right to change this choice.

Star Player

Going into last season, the presumed star player was rising sophomore forward Sam Dekker. All of that changed, however, during the fourth game of the season when Frank Kaminsky scored a team record 43 points against North Dakota. Unrelated side note: North Dakota's leading scorer, Troy Huff had 37 points himself in the game. Back to Detective Kaminsky, though. Kaminsky came, pretty much, out of nowhere to be a dominant inside/outside scoring threat for the Badgers last year. He ended up averaging 13.9 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks per game. He shot nearly 53% from the floor and 38% on threes too. He was named 1st Team All-B1G, the MOP of the West Region in the Tournament, and came in second for best soundbite (behind Nigel Hayes of course).

This year, Kaminsky has had all of the expectations heaped upon him. I do mean all of them too. Kaminsky was a preseason NATIONAL 1st Team All-America selection as well as preseason B1G Player of the Year. He's also expected to lead the Badgers back to the Final Four and further. So far he has responded with, you know, better stats than last year. Kaminsky is averaging 16 points, 7.6 boards, and 1.9 blocks per game. He's shooting 54.5% from the floor and a preposterous 42.4% from beyond the arc. He's also averaging 2.3 assists per game (up from 1.3 last year) because he's adept at passing out of the double (or triple) team. The Tank is even getting to the free throw line more.

A team will make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament on the back of its star player and so far, this year's Badger team, with Kaminsky 2.0, is more equipped to do so.

The Supporting Cast Performance

The nice thing about comparing these two iterations of Badgers basketball is that there was almost no change over. Ben Brust graduated and Vitto Brown and Zak Showalter have seen increased minutes, but that is it in terms of contributors. Behind Kaminsky last year, the top scorers were Brust (12.8), Dekker (12.4), Jackson (10.7), and Gasser (8.8). The top rebounders were the same four guys, just in a different order. That's a pretty solid supporting cast and one of the main reasons Wisconsin did so well last year. The excellent starting lineup, with everyone contributing, and then B1G Sixth Man of the Year Nigel Hayes coming off the bench proved to be too much for most teams. Sprinkle in some Bronson Koenig and a dash of Duje Dukan and baby, you've got a stew going.

Losing Brust was a blow, mostly to the three point shooting percentage, but not one Wisconsin was expected to be knocked out by. This year's top four scorers behind Kaminsky are Dekker (11.8), Hayes (11.7), Jackson (9.7), and Gasser (7.2). This may appear to be a bit of a downgrade, but Wisconsin is a deeper team this year and contributions from Koenig, Dukan, Showalter, and Brown are way up. The team's field goal percentage also is up to 49.3% from last year's 45.9%.

This year's team gets the edge for supporting cast, not only because they are deeper and thus more equipped to handle injuries/stretches of bad play from Kaminsky, but also because they have two guys (Dekker and Hayes), instead of one (just Dekker), who have shown the ability to dominate for periods of a game.

Overall Team Performance

Let's take a look at the Four Factors from KenPom for a solid, quick delineation between the two teams.

Four Factors 2014 2015
Effective Field Goal Percentage 53.3 (32nd) 55.8 (23rd)
Turnover Percentage 12.7 (2nd) 14.1 (4th)
Offensive Rebounding Percentage 28.1 (279th) 31.8 (150th)
FTA/FGA 42.6 (99th) 36.4 (202nd)

There is little difference between the first three factors, 2014 turned it over less but 2015 has a higher effective field goal percentage and is rebounding the ball better on the offensive glass ('sup Nigel). The big difference seems to be the 2015 team not getting to the free throw line as well as the 2014 team. This is also proven by looking at where Wisconsin's points came from the last two years. This year, 18.9% of their points come from the charity stripe while in 2014, 23% of their points did.

For the final two comparisons we turn to KenPom's adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency ratings. In 2014, Wisconsin had the fourth most efficient offense in the land with 120.8 points scored per 100 possessions against an average D-1 defense. The defense gave up 97.6 (49th best). In 2015, the offense is at 114.8 (still fourth best in the country, btw) and the defense is at 88.4 (seventh best). The offense is scoring less, but it is still on par with the best offenses in the country. The defense has gone from above average to elite, and that is why I will give the edge to the 2015 Badgers over the 2014 Badgers.

Now, this isn't to say that Wisconsin is a lock for the Final Four this year, because the only lock in college basketball history was Kentucky going 40-0 last year, but they are in just as good a, if not better, position this year than last year.