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Is Wisconsin Basketball playing down to their competition?

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Over their five game winning streak the Badgers have escaped against lesser competition. Are they playing down to the competition?

NCAA Basketball: Wisconsin at Rutgers Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

What do we really have to complain about? Honestly, the Badgers are 18-3 and tied for first in the Big Ten. In fact, at 17-3, the team locked up the third best start in the last 100 years of Wisconsin basketball.

With two recent Final Fours and nearly two decades of NCAA Tournament appearances, expectations are (somewhat unfairly) high. So we’re nitpicking a bit, but there are some recent cracks in the 18-3 record.

Let’s just lay out the last month or so. Wisconsin’s on a five game winning streak and has moved to tenth in the AP Poll. That streak includes a nice road win at Minnesota and a dominant performance against Ohio State at home. But here’s where we nitpick. Wisconsin struggled in the first half against Penn State and then once again versus Michigan and Rutgers.

It’s weird to be concerned in the midst of the five-game winning streak, but let’s quickly examine three recent games anyway

First Half vs. Penn State

At times Wisconsin’s offense stagnates. The ball moves only from side-to-side. Nobody’s attacking the rim, or looking to get it to the post. When that happens, they tend to settle for outside jumpers, which may (or may) not fall. Because they’re not moving the ball inside-out , the shots are of a lesser quality..

Wisconsin was 33 percent from three (39 percent overall) in the first half against Penn State and only held a three point lead at home (36-33). Now, when Wisconsin isn’t shooting the ball well they can get it to Ethan Happ, who’s been pretty devastating around the rim.

However, the Badgers don’t attack the basket as much and only score about 17 percent of their points at the line, which is 313th in the nation. The options are limited to Happ (basically) when the shots aren’t falling.

Michigan

None of the numbers suggested a bad performance, but the eye test indicated a pretty lethargic one. Michigan’s a middle-of-the-road Big Ten team and took Wisconsin nearly to the wire in Madison.

Credit should go to the Wolverines; they shot the lights out in the second half (7-for-11 from three). Also, Ethan Happ was in foul trouble for a time and Moritz Wagner played with great energy and scored eight in the final 20 minutes. That’s besides the hot shooting from Derrick Walton Jr., Zak Irvin and Duncan Robinson, who helped keep the Wolverines alive.

Michigan led by six with under seven minutes left in the game, but Bronson Koenig scored 10 points during a key stretch in the second half. Like I said, the numbers looked good, but the eye test told a different story. Wisconsin scored 42 in the second half, but at times didn’t play with much urgency.

Rutgers

It really shouldn’t matter where Wisconsin plays Rutgers, but thanks to Happ Wisconsin barely escaped with another victory over a lesser opponent. Rutgers may be on the rise, but the Scarlet Knights are still a bottom tier Big Ten team right now.

The numbers tell a story; Wisconsin couldn’t shoot. The Badgers were 3-for-25 from three (12 percent). Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes were 4-for-20 from the field combined, with both going long periods of time without scoring. Happ, though, scored 32 points (seven in OT) and carried Wisconsin.

If the Badgers are playing at top end, Rutgers isn’t in the game. The shooting numbers are concerning and more so that Wisconsin oscillates so aggressively between hot and cold. The Badgers were able to pick up the win as they were facing Rutgers, but in March a game like this would be a knockout blow.

Overall

Wisconsin has great adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. Yet they struggle to score at times and have periods where they seem lethargic on offense. It’s hard to pinpoint whether they do play down to their competition, or if it’s an indication of a larger problem with offensive consistency.

Occasionally, teams will fall into funks where it’s hard to get buckets. Even on off nights, Wisconsin has always been able to manufacture offense by being disciplined and getting really quality shots. However, during certain stretches as of late it has been hard for them to score.

Perhaps there’s nothing more to it. Maybe it’s just a mid-season funk. Either way, the Badgers are still riding a five game winning streak and they’re still atop the Big Ten. It’s pretty hard to feel bad about that.