The Wisconsin Badgers are midway through the Big Ten season, and to just about everyone's surprise, Bo Ryan's crew has managed to go 6-3 in conference play despite playing five games against ranked opponents.
Why people are surprised at this point is the real mystery.
That 6-3 start is good for fifth place in the Big Ten, and a Ryan-led team has never finished worse than fourth in the conference since his arrival in 2001. Overall, the Badgers stand at 15-7 with nine regular season games to play, setting themselves up nicely for their 12th consecutive NCAA tournament berth under Ryan.
Even after being dealt a significant blow before the season began when Josh Gasser tore his ACL, Wisconsin competes night in and night out without a true standout player on the roster.
It's been a true team effort for the Badgers this season, so let's go down the line and grade the main contributors for Wisconsin.
Breakdown: One of the three senior leaders on the team, Jared Berggren had one of the most thrilling moments of the college basketball season (pictured above) when he drove down the lane against the No. 2 ranked Indiana Hoosiers and threw down a monster dunk over Victor Oladipo.
This was the defining game for the Badgers this season—it showed how far Wisconsin had come as a team since an 18-point beat down at the hands of the Florida Gators on Nov. 14. Berggren has been the biggest reason for that turnaround because of his shot-blocking prowess and overall defensive presence on the floor.
He's one of the top swatters in the conference with 1.8 blocks per game—he's also Wisconsin's leading scorer with 11.9 points a contest to go along with a 49.5 field goal percentage.
His outside shooting has suffered this season, but he holds this team together defensively and is always a threat to score from any spot on the floor. Berggren's unquestionably Wisconsin's MVP at the midseason point of conference play.
Breakdown: Ryan Evans can score the basketball in two ways, and two ways only—when there is nobody around him under the basket, and when he has a wide-open 15-foot jump shot.
As a senior, we expected Evans' offensive game to have evolved more during his four years at Wisconsin, but such is not the case. Not only has his offense remained stagnant, but his free-throw shooting has taken a dive of epic proportions for reasons unknown. Through 22 games, he is shooting a dismal 40.4 percent from the charity stripe.
Still, Evans plays the second-most minutes on the team—he can be relied on to crash the boards and play sound defense. He's fundamentally sound in that regard, and even though Evans will hoist up shots that have no business being released, it's something coach Ryan is willing to live with.
That free-throw percentage needs to improve, though, or else Evans will be a big liability on the court late in games for the Badgers.
Breakdown: As the heart and sole of the Badgers and one of the scrappiest players in the nation, Mike Bruesewitz couldn't possibly have a more fitting last name.
He's known as "Bruiser" around Wisconsin, and you'll seldom see someone other than Bruesewitz on the floor first diving after a loose ball. That's not all the senior forward brings to the table, as he can usually be counted on to knock down an open shot and hold his own defensively.
Often times, Bruesewitz is asked to guard a bigger player, but he still doesn't give an inch. He fills his role perfectly, and the only reason he isn't on the floor as much as Berggren and Evans is because of his all-out, all-the-time effort. That, and the fact that this style of play often leads to foul trouble.
But, if Bruesewitz didn't bring his lunch pail to work everyday, he just wouldn't be "Bruiser." He's improved his shooting from outside by a good margin from last season, and he is what keeps Wisconsin ticking—pretty remarkable stuff considering the gruesome laceration he suffered on his leg before the season started.
Breakdown: With Gasser out, Brust has assumed the title as the team's best guard, and he's also the team's biggest threat from beyond the arc. Brust is shooting a solid 39.5 percent from three, and he isn't afraid to let it fly from NBA range, either.
Because of Gasser's absence, Brust logs the most minutes for Wisconsin at 32.6 per game, and he's also the Badgers' second-leading scorer following a breakout performance at Illinois. Bo Ryan typically uses a three-guard rotation, and if it wasn't for Brust, this team would be in a lot of trouble in the backcourt.
While Brust isn't renowned for what he does on the opposite end of the court, he's an important part of the Big Ten's top defense, leading the team in steals while hauling in 5.5 rebounds per game. He also dishes out the most assists for the Badgers—Brust is more than just an outside shooter.
If anything, he should put it up more.
Breakdown: There's no denying that Traevon Jackson was put in a difficult position to succeed this season.
With Gasser and Brust on the team, there weren't many scenarios that pointed to Jackson starting at point guard for the Badgers, but that was the hand Wisconsin was dealt, and Jackson has started 16 of 22 games at the point.
He's learning on the fly while playing nearly 20 minutes more a game than he did in the 2011-12 season—he's already played in more games than all of last season. But Jackson is a poor shooter from just about anywhere on the court and is far too error-prone, sporting a 1.26 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Unfortunately, Bo Ryan has little choice but to hope Jackson learns from his mistakes as the season goes on—there aren't really any legitimate options behind him. Jackson's shining moment in the first half of conference play was his game-winning shot to defeat Minnesota on Jan. 26, so he gets some brownie points for his grapes.
Breakdown: For as little as the Badgers have on the bench this season, there will always be Sam Dekker to call upon.
The freshman phenom will one day be the face of Wisconsin basketball, and just like any freshman, Dekker has encountered some tough times and games in which he's disappeared. He makes up for those mishaps with his natural basketball instincts and ability to score by creating his own shot.
His lanky 6'7" size and ability to handle the ball makes him a more natural fit as a 2-guard.
Dekker leads the team in three-point percentage (.413) and is one of the top shooters on the team in general. He gets more minutes (22.2) than any Wisconsin freshman in recent memory, and even though that's partly because Ryan doesn't have much of a choice, it's also because he deserves to be out there just as much as anyone.
He'll be a starter next season, but for now, Dekker will have to settle for being the Badgers' super sub.
Breakdown: Another player affected by the chain reaction of Gasser's ACL tear, George Marshall is seeing over 18 minutes a game this season, which is probably about 18 more minutes than he was expecting to see.
He and Jackson alternated starts early in non-conference play as Ryan attempted to figure out who would become the full-time starter at point guard—eventually Jackson won out, likely due to the fact that he's been a Badger longer than Marshall.
Ryan is notorious for having a short leash when it comes to freshmen, and that has been the case with Marshall when he interrupts the flow of the swing offense. He's proven to have a nice touch from outside (40 percent from three) and takes much better care of the ball than Jackson, but it's Marshall who comes off the pine.
In a way, that makes the Wisconsin bench stronger—but like Jackson, Marshall has a lot to learn about the way Bo Ryan wants things done around Madison.
Breakdown: Frank Kaminsky can be an awkward looking guy out on the floor, especially with his new eyewear following a jab to the iris against Indiana on Jan. 15.
But, in his second game back from the injury, Kaminsky had the best game of his college career against Illinois, scoring 19 points in extended minutes due to Berggren's foul trouble.
The sophomore has an incredible touch for a big man. He shoots 40 percent from three and just under 50 percent overall in just 10.4 minutes a game. Thanks to his most recent performance, however, Kaminsky could see those minutes increase. This wouldn't be a bad thing—not only does Kaminsky have potential, but coach Ryan has had to ride his starting forwards to the ground due to a lack of depth.
Wisconsin doesn't want to be burned out come tourney time, and more minutes from Kaminsky could help avoid a potential nosedive. He still needs to improve on the defensive end and assert himself more on offense, but that will come with experience for the eventual starter.
Breakdown: Whenever Bo Ryan simply cannot bear to see either Traevon Jackson or George Marshall on the floor, he calls on Zak Showalter.
That's the freshman's role in a nutshell. In non-conference play, there was more playing time to be had by Showalter during Ryan's experimental period with the guard position, but Showalter doesn't have any redeeming traits, and that's why he's essentially out of playing time these days.
Perhaps he'll develop into something more during his time at Wisconsin, but what's interesting is that Showalter will probably see more playing time this season than he will next year because of Gasser's absence and eventual return. He was a good player in high school, but that has yet to translate to the college level.
Breakdown: The one area Wisconsin isn't short on is forwards, and Air Force transfer Zach Bohannon doesn't find the court as often as he'd prefer as a result.
His name may look familiar—he's the younger brother of Jason Bohannon—but Zach doesn't have the same talent as Jason. With three senior forwards departing at season's end, that will open up an opportunity for Bohannon to earn consistent playing time, or perhaps even crack the starting lineup next year.
But this season, Bohannon was only given a few opportunities to make an impression on Ryan and it simply didn't happen. Watch for the junior to have an impact in the 2012-13 season and perhaps get some minutes here and there the rest of the way.
Breakdown: The remainder of the Wisconsin Badgers' roster—Evan Anderson, Jordan Smith, J.D. Wise and Dan Fahey—should only expect to see playing time during mop-up duty in the second half of the conference season and beyond.
We haven't seen enough of these players to give them a fair grade, and the only one out of the bunch who could potentially develop into a regular contributor in the future is Anderson because of his size. In Anderson's limited time this season, he's looked outmatched and overwhelmed by the speed of the game, but he's only a redshirt freshman and has plenty of room to grow.
Wise and Fahey are seniors, and Smith, a sophomore, is buried behind too many guards in the depth chart. They won't have to worry about taking the towel off from around their necks anytime soon.