On Thursday, February 9th the Wisconsin Badgers won a hard fought, overtime game at Pinnacle Bank Arena against the Nebraska Cornhuskers. This boosted Greg Gard’s team to 21 and 3. At this point they stood at number seven in the AP Poll and two losses clear of both Purdue and Maryland in the Big Ten standings.
Momentum seemed to be continuing from last year when the Badgers rattled off 11 of their final 13 regular season games followed by a memorable Sweet 16 run including a Bronson Koenig buzzer beater to upset Xavier in the round of 32.
As of the Nebraska game Koenig was hitting clutch shot after clutch shot, Ethan Happ was being mentioned with Caleb Swanigan for Big Ten Player of the Year, and Nigel Hayes was doing all the things seniors do to elevate winning teams. Then there were Zak Showalter and Vitto Brown hitting timely three pointers and wonderfully filling their roles as hustle players on the defensive end.
Fast forward three weeks and that all seems like a distant memory as the Badgers have dropped five of seven to end the regular season. While none of the losses were horrendous it certainly leaves lots of room for doubt going into the post-season.
The clearest rational for the recent dip is Bronson Koenig’s health as a calf injury has hobbled him for most of February. Despite only missing one game, a home loss to Michigan, it is plain to see that he hasn’t been one-hundred percent. Perhaps no one has been more impacted by this than Happ, who has seen a concerning decline in his stat line. In his last eight games, he was held to single digits five times after he scoring in single digits only twice in the 20 before that.
What also is so intriguing about this year’s Wisconsin is how opposite they’re journey has been from the 2015-16 team that was made up of essentially the same roster.
That team’s first 13 games with Bo Ryan still at the helm had a record of 8 and 5 and then finished the regular season out with an 11 and 2 run in their last 13 games.
This year’s team? 11 and 2 to start the regular season and 8 and 5 down the stretch.
Obviously, it’s oversimplifying to look at the records like this, but it is quite ironic. One thing is clear from Captain Obvious: last year’s team started slow and went into March with momentum, this year’s version of the Badgers is sputtering.
In the 2016 Big Ten Tournament, Wisconsin did in fact lose a first-round game to Nebraska before going on their Sweet 16 Run in the NCAA Tournament.
What is encouraging today is the Badgers dismantling of a very solid Minnesota on Senior Day at the Kohl Center. That game saw Koenig go for 17, and Happ a solid all-around effort despite only going 33 percent from the field.
In a year where the Big Ten is down as a whole it is extremely difficult to gauge where Wisconsin stacks up nationally. They aren’t an athletic team or have a deep roster, but what they do have going for them is experience.
Winning in the Big Dance is not something that can be discounted when you are in a single elimination tournament in which nerves play such a critical role. The seniors this year have gone to a National Championship, a Final Four, and a Sweet 16 so they’ve been through the gauntlet. While Greg Gard and company may have let Purdue steal the Big Ten regular season crown there’s enough basketball still to come for the Badgers to totally erase a February swoon from memory.
Wisconsin awaits the winner of Indiana and Iowa on Friday, March 10th in the Big Ten Tournament. Joe Lunardi currently has the Badgers as the number 6 seed in the East facing off with Middle Tennessee in the Orlando pod.
Please let us know what you think in the comments and subscribe to Six Wins in March!