Wisconsin’s 81-80 win over Western Kentucky on Wednesday was a prime example of what it’s like to watch the Badgers this season. Nothing is certain. The Badgers were winning convincingly late before nearly tossing it away down the stretch, something that has become a habit early this season. In the end, Brad Davison and Wisconsin completely stole the game away from the Hilltoppers and the Badgers won to improve to 5-7 on the season.
That’s what it’s going to be like watching the young Badgers this season. There are going to be ups and downs and inconsistencies in every game, particularly since the Badgers are basically down to a six- or seven-man rotation due to injuries to guards D’Mitrik Trice and Kobe King. And two of those rotation players, true freshman Nate Reuvers and junior T.J. Schlundt, were never supposed to play this season.
Wednesday night brought the unusual sight of seeing Wisconsin’s opponent, particularly a mid-major, put up 80 points on the Badgers. Still, there was enthusiasm for the future, as Davison, a true freshman, had 16 points and five assists, while third-year sophomore Brevin Pritzl and redshirt freshman Aleem Ford each shot 4 of 5 from behind the arc on the way to scoring 17 points and 14 points, respectively.
There’s also the issue of how they beat Western Kentucky, a foul on the opposite baseline just moments after Davison drew a questionable charge call on Western Kentucky’s other late-game possession. Obviously Wisconsin fans are pleased with the win, particularly one that was desperately needed, but man it felt cheap. As much as the Wisconsin fanbase embraces the Wisconsin stereotypes and style of play, that one was a little over the top. Still, part of you can’t help but love the move.
It starts with Davison, the 6-foot-3 guard who has burst onto the scene as a freshman. While he does slap the floor and pump his fist from time to time, it’s not fully Davison’s fault that he is going to be a polarizing figure in the Big Ten for the next few years. The announcers just pound it into the viewer’s head at every moment, even if there isn’t a moment.
Davison had just committed a crucial turnover and ill-advised foul in the backcourt in the middle of Western Kentucky’s comeback, but FS1 announcers Tim Brando and Stephen Bardo were all over his “heady” play as the game entered crunch time. And it turned out to be correct. Davison did make a heady play, baiting Western Kentucky into running over him and hitting the game-winning free throw. But we can wait to see that, we don’t need to force the narrative down everyone’s throat before it even happens.
Anyway, there are more reasons to watch the Badgers this year, starting with All-American big man Ethan Happ. The 6-foot-10 junior has had some down games this season, but he’s still as fun to watch as any big in the country. Happ is averaging 16.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.3 steals per game despite all eyes being on him for the first time in his career.
Khalil Iverson can be a tough watch at times, but he is as athletic as anyone in the country and typically has at least one eye-popping dunk, or dunk attempt, per game.
The rest of the offensive intrigue, specifically without Trice and King, comes from who’s going to be bombing 3-pointers for the Badgers, who made 12 of 20 from behind the arc against Western Kentucky.
Wisconsin is still waiting on Pritzl to fully embrace his role as the deep threat, something that will likely show up from game-to-game but is tough to count on going forward. Ford has also shown a very solid stroke for a 6-foot-8 forward, while Schlundt hasn’t been afraid of jacking 3-pointers in his first two career games receiving significant playing time.
Freshman big man Nathan Reuvers is also comfortable behind the 3-point line, while little-used big men Andy Van Vliet and Alex Illikainen are ready to put them up if they ever find themselves back in the rotation.
Defensively, there’s a lot of work to be done. There’s no duo in the country that picks at opponents as much as Happ and Davison, but the Badgers haven’t come together as a unit yet. It can be tough when guys are shuffling in and out of the lineup, but defensive proficiency is going to be key if the Badgers are going to get back to their winning ways, as Wisconsin clearly doesn’t have the offensive firepower to keep up with the average-to-good teams in the Big Ten.
The Badgers have some time to figure it out, as they have Green Bay, Chicago State and UMass-Lowell on the schedule prior to restarting Big Ten play against Indiana on Jan. 2. However, with the current limitations of Wisconsin’s roster, none of those games are gimmes and the Badgers are going to have to continue to find ways to grind out wins if they want to make it to their 20th straight NCAA Tournament.
In the end, that’s why you can’t be mad at the Badgers for how the Western Kentucky game finished. You can be mad at the refs, but when you’re struggling like Wisconsin is and there are no guaranteed wins on the schedule, you do whatever it takes to get a win, no matter how annoying it is to watch.