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Big Ten Men’s Basketball Mid Season Check-In: Wisconsin Badgers

Can the Badgers compete for the Big Ten title?

Marquette v Wisconsin Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images

As we watch the final non-conference cupcakes (and a trio of remaining competitive games), it is time to take stock of where our Big Ten basketball programs stand a third of the way through the season. We start our midseason check-ins with the Wisconsin Badgers by virtue of their non-conference slate already being complete.

Resume

Record: 9-3 (1-0)

Torvik: 24, KenPom: 14, Haslam: 21, NET: 14, AP: 23, Coaches: 23

*NOTE: we are listing Torvik rankings for opponents. This is because a) NET rankings suck in December and you really shouldn’t pay attention to them until February and b) Torvik is completely free (KenPom is not) and we prefer using Torvik to Haslam. Numbers as of December 27.

Wins: @Michigan State (11), Marquette (12), N-Virginia (30), N-SMU (53), Arkansas State (170), Jacksonville State (188), Robert Morris (283), Chicago State (290), Western Illinois (308)

Losses: Tennessee (9), @Providence (37), @Arizona (3)

Marquette v Wisconsin Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images

The wins against Marquette, Michigan State, and Virginia all came by double-digits and should look really nice on the resume sheet come March. Getting Sparty before they gelled was highly beneficial. SMU should be at least a Quad 2 victory.

None of the losses are surprising at this point in the season as Tennessee, Providence, and Arizona all rank in the AP top 25 for a reason and two of those came on the road. Taking a closer look at those losses do however suggest that the ceiling of this Wisconsin team may not be quite as high as Badger fans would hope for. Marquette, Michigan State, and Virginia are all perimeter oriented teams. Tennessee, Providence, and Arizona have much more length and strength in the post, making them harder to score on close to the basket.

Kind of...: The Providence loss was just awful, and, with Cooley gone, felt like it might be a real drag on the profile. The Friars have turned out to be solid, thus far, though. Which is good, because it was a dreadful performance.

Conference season will be interesting because, as our savvy “writer” noted, the Badgers are not a juggernaut inside. Right now, they’re the top 4 seed at Bracketmatrix. I would take that in a heartbeat. This is not a Final Four team, unless things really get weird. But, a Sweet 16 appearance would be nice, and could be feasible with the right draw.

On pace for: NCAA Tournament berth

Wisconsin v Arizona
Put on your dancing shoes Greg Gard
Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images

Torvik projects Wisconsin to have a 96.1% chance of making the NCAA tournament and gives them an average seed line of a 4. I don’t see any reason to disagree with those numbers here. The Badgers did a good job of building a resume in the non-conference and are one of the few Big Ten teams for whom a 10-10 conference record would likely be enough to squeeze into the postseason. With a road win already under their belts against Michigan State, Wisconsin needs to go just 9-10 the rest of the way.

Kind of...: The schedule broke UW’s way in B1G play. Besides getting @MSU early, the home 1-plays are Maryland, Illinois, and Northwestern. None typically fun road trips for UW, and they don’t have to make them this year. They start 2024 with Iowa and Nebraska coming to Madison. A quick start to the new year would be helpful.

Biggest Surprises

Arkansas State v Wisconsin Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images

BoilerUp89: Freshman wing John Blackwell has quickly become a valuable contributor on this roster and is provided most of the outside shooting punch for the Badgers roster at 48% on the year. As a three star ranked outside of the top 200, Blackwell has been a welcome surprise.

MC ClapYoHandz: I will echo Blackwell here. Over summer I would have penciled him in as a redshirt candidate...the most likely of the class at that. But he’s been a revelation. His scouting report coming in was that of a skilled defender with a motor and maybe not as advanced on the offensive side yet. Instead he’s proven to be a true three-level scorer with such a natural feel for the game. I don’t want to put too much on him but it seems like he could potentially become a Johnny Davis-level player.

Kind of...: Blackwell is a surprise, but was also getting a lot of whisper talk form as soon as he set foot on campus. “Freshman most ready to contribute,” “diamond in the rough,” etc. He’s still the right answer, but I want to acknowledge Chucky Hepburn’s improved efficiency/decision-making and A.J. Storr’s athleticism/ability to get shots. These two things are related. Nobody is going to confuse this year’s Badgers with the 2015 version that still is the most efficient offense in KenPom history. However, last year UW was 140 in KP adjO. This year so far, they’re 12. Both Storr and Hepburn are a bit below UW’s team numbers, but they’re freed space up for everybody else.

Biggest Disappointments

Chicago State v Wisconsin
If Essegian can refind his freshman year form, the Badgers stock may go significantly up
Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images

BoilerUp89: Sophomore Connor Essegian. A year after being a volume shooter from three and a member of the Big Ten all-freshman team, Essegian has seen his minutes plummet and his contributions in those minutes have not been nearly as good as his freshman campaign. We hope that Essegian can regain his form.

MC: For me Essegian gets a pass for now as he injured his back in the season opener and spent most of the non-con season getting back into form. That said, you can’t manufacture more minutes to give on the floor and the additions of Blackwell and AJ Storr have impacted Essegian the most, as they are simply better two-way players. Essegian has picked up more minutes recently and perhaps a reprieve from the Bo Ryan-esque short leash he had for defensive miscues.

My nominee will instead be Gus Yalden. A super-skilled below-the-rim big (a Wisconsin classic), Yalden looked to be a key post contributor joining a roster that needed one. Since arriving on campus, though, off the court incidents both within and out of his control derailed his route to playing time and he is instead a redshirt candidate.

Kind of...: Essegian gets a partial pass, but he looks absolutely lost on defense. It’s almost as if he is coming off a case of amnesia and relearning defending from scratch. It’s bad so far. But I agree with @MC about Yalden. He was touted as having “old man” game and being ready to go. His future could still be bright, but it won’t arrive as early as expected.

Reasons for Optimism

NCAA Basketball: Wisconsin at Michigan State Dale Young-USA TODAY Sports

BoilerUp89: AJ Storr gives Wisconsin something they usually don’t have: athleticism at the wing. Storr’s ability to attack the rim off the bounce and get to the foul line is something that most Badger offenses having been missing under Greg Gard. The front court duo of Wahl and Crowl offer a high floor of reliable post scoring and excellent rebounding. Wisconsin is perhaps the second most likely Big Ten team to make the Sweet 16 this season due to this floor. A run at a Big Ten regular season title isn’t out of the question if they get some bounces to go their way.

MC: The non-conference performance. Wisconsin gave itself the toughest schedule in the B1G and walked away from it with several marquee wins and, save for a recent knock to Chucky Hepburn, relatively good health. Fans with PTSD from last year’s late swoon into the NIT can rest a little easier with this early resume in hand.

Kind of...: As one of said fans—seriously, during the Providence game I vowed not to watch UW again until they beat a P5 team—the scars are real from last year. Now, the problem is tempering expectations given that Wahl is the only guy who won’t be back next year. Feels like the median sort of Bo Ryan season. Probably not going to win the B1G, but top 4 finish feels quite possible, and a real threat to win some games in March. I’ll take it!

Reasons for Concern

NCAA Basketball: Wisconsin at Arizona Zachary BonDurant-USA TODAY Sports

BoilerUp89: The Badgers have excelled against guard oriented teams that they can beat up in the paint. That’s largely due to the contributions of Wahl and Crowl, but we’ve also seen those two struggle against physical teams in the post. When their post game is limited, the Badgers need to rely on perimeter shooting and Storr for their offense. Unfortunately for the Dairy State, there have been games that Storr has been very inefficient and the outside shooting for the Badgers stands at just 32.9% on the season. The Badgers are a very good team, but aren’t as flexible when it comes to matching up with different styles of play. Come March that will hurt them unless we see growth from their guard play.

MC: Agreed with the above, and even before looking at March, no team represents an interior struggle better than the heavy preseason conference favorite. Wisconsin gets Purdue twice this year and winning both would be a miracle. Purdue has already taken on a weird conference loss which helps, but if Wisconsin has its eyes on making a title run (and based on how the season has gone so far I’m sure they do), they probably need help from others to move Purdue out of the way.

Kind of...: I can’t deny the logic here, but there’s a chance it’s overstated. The Tennessee game was the second of the season, and UW tried to run with the Vols (71 possessions) after having scored 105 in the season-opener. The Arizona loss...well, Arizona is really good, and that was Arizona’s best performance to date. That was a 76 possession game. If UW gunks it up pace-wise, they can hang with most anybody on the right night. Oso Ighodaro is 6’11” and has shown out most of the year. UW kept him in check. That said, nobody will confuse Crowl with Rudy Gobert, and Zach Edey is going to feast.

Remaining Schedule

Home: Iowa, Nebraska, Northwestern, Indiana, Michigan State, Purdue, Ohio State, Maryland, Illinois, Rutgers

Away: Ohio State, Penn State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Michigan, Rutgers, Iowa, Indiana, Purdue

BoilerUp89: When it comes to competing for the Big Ten title, I don’t love this schedule for Wisconsin. Getting Illinois and Northwestern just once each and only at home is a boost, but single plays against Penn State, Minnesota, and Maryland aren’t a favor. More concerning for me is that Wisconsin has double plays against Indiana, Rutgers, and Purdue. I know Indiana and Rutgers have not been stellar so far this year (and Indiana is in fact incapable of winning in Madison), but Rutgers and Indiana have excellent post defenders that should be able to limit the offensive scoring punch of Wahl and Crowl and drag the Badgers into a low scoring battle. While those two teams make look good based on comparing metrics, they aren’t a terrific matchup for the Badgers.

Kind of...: Could be better if winning the B1G is the goal, but not bad in terms of keeping a pretty good seed even if they go 12-8. If Wisconsin is heading to West Lafayette in the season finale needing a win to grab a share of the title, I’ll curse the schedule then. For now, going to try to enjoy the season on its own terms, relative to the low expectations of two months ago.

BoilerUp89: Absolutely, schedule's fine for getting a good seed.

Poll

Wisconsin will...

This poll is closed

  • 93%
    make the NCAA tournament
    (113 votes)
  • 1%
    make the NIT field
    (2 votes)
  • 4%
    finish the season on a 20 game losing streak
    (6 votes)
121 votes total Vote Now

Poll

The Badgers will...

This poll is closed

  • 8%
    Find a way to win the Big Ten regular season
    (10 votes)
  • 59%
    Secure a double bye in the Big Ten tournament
    (68 votes)
  • 27%
    Secure a single bye in the Big Ten tournament
    (32 votes)
  • 4%
    Play on Wednesday in the Big Ten tournament
    (5 votes)
115 votes total Vote Now