Wisconsin Basketball: 5 Questions Badgers Face in B1G Stretch Run
Nothing against people who have chosen to make their living arrangements under a rock, but that's where you would have needed to reside if you missed what the Wisconsin Badgers did against the No. 3 Michigan Wolverines on the afternoon of Feb. 9.
In a game that was on an astronomical pace, Ben Brust decided he'd extend it five more minutes when he drained a 40-foot prayer at the buzzer to send it into overtime. Eventually, Brust would can the game winner, and the Badgers escaped with a miracle victory at the Kohl Center.
Thanks to Brust's heroics, Wisconsin is back in the Top 25 and remains just a game out of first place in the Big Ten standings, which is stunning considering the state this team was in about two months ago.
Not only are the Badgers setting themselves up nicely for a low seed in the NCAA tournament, but they are also gearing up for the stretch run and a shot at the Big Ten championship. Here are five questions that need answering should Wisconsin want to continue its winning ways.
Will Free Throws Continue to Haunt Wisconsin?
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You have to believe Bo Ryan sets aside some time in practice each day for his team to work on free-throw shooting, but you wouldn't know it based on how the Badgers have shot from the charity stripe this season.
That especially pertains to senior forward Ryan Evans, who appeared to have things figured out against Iowa in a double-overtime thriller on Feb. 6 when he knocked down two game-clinching free throws, but Evans then went 1-of-5 against Michigan. As a team, the Badgers are shooting 61.9 percent from the line this season.
Evans himself is a dismal 41.4 percent after shooting better than 70 percent from the line in his past two seasons. Free throws could have easily cost Wisconsin the game against the Wolverines had it not been for Brust's heroics, and it notably halted an upset opportunity against Michigan State earlier this season.
There will be some games down the stretch—both in conference play and the season-ending tournaments—that go down to the wire, and in those games, the Badgers will need to start knocking down their throws. Otherwise, this season could start heading in the opposite direction fast.
Do the Badgers Have Enough Left in the Tank?
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The Badgers have now played back-to-back overtime games, which is exhausting enough, but there are other factors that could begin to weigh on Wisconsin when it comes to fatigue issues.
The B1G is arguably the best conference in college basketball this season, and the Badgers have already played six ranked teams during conference play. Like almost no season before it, the Big Ten schedule is an absolute gauntlet and requires a tenacious effort night in and night out.
Combine that with the eight-man rotation Ryan has been using, and that could make for some tired legs down the stretch for the Badgers. It's where Josh Gasser's ACL injury could really affect Wisconsin the most, as if his absent skill set wasn't enough of a loss.
Gasser's preseason ACL tear left the Badgers with three guards who could contribute regularly, leaving Brust playing over 33 minutes a game, which is asking a lot of the junior guard.
The three players who contribute off the bench do their part, especially freshman forward Sam Dekker, but the intensity the Badgers play with on defense has to take its toll and could impact how the team plays for the remainder of the season.
Can Jared Berggren Regain His Touch from Outside?
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When senior forward Jared Berggren gets a one-on-one matchup in the post, he's nearly unstoppable. But when he lets it fly from beyond the arc, he's far from automatic, shooting at just a 28.8 percent clip this season.
It's not as if Berggren hasn't had success shooting behind the three-point line in the past. He shot just over 37 percent in the 2011-12 season, but his inside game wasn't as refined as it is this year, which is where he has really done his damage.
It's important for Wisconsin to have that inside presence, but more than ever this season, the Badgers have become an outside-oriented team, and that hasn't benefited Berggren. He has the ability to knock down shots from outside, but for whatever reason, those shots haven't been falling.
As with the Badgers' free-throw woes, it would be nice to see Berggren regain his confidence from three rather than shy away from the outside shot. His opportunity to have an all-around game with his dribbling ability and strong post play would greatly increase as a result.
Will Traevon Jackson Improve His Ball Security?
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Sophomore guard Traevon Jackson went up against his former AAU teammate Trey Burke on Saturday, and things didn't go so well for Jackson. He wound up turning the ball over five times, and Jackson averages two turnovers a game.
In no way could Jackson envision that he would assume the role of starting point guard this season, and he has come through in the clutch on multiple occasions. But Jackson needs to do a better job of taking care of the basketball and avoiding mental mistakes.
What Jackson does bring to the table is a confident attitude, and he is someone who will continue to get better as his career progresses at Madison. Having to go up against players like Aaron Craft, Keith Appling, Andre Hollins, Brandon Paul and Burke is far from an easy task, and those experiences will make Jackson stronger.
Hopefully, that begins to show this season, because there isn't anyone else on the roster who will be relieving Jackson of his duties.
Do the Badgers Have What It Takes to Win the Big Ten?
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Wisconsin is nearly through the most difficult part of its schedule, having played six of its last nine games against ranked opponents. Even so, the Badgers sit just one game out of first in the B1G standings and currently have just two games remaining against teams in the Top 25 with seven to play.
It could very well come down to March 7 when the Badgers travel to East Lansing to play Michigan State. In their first meeting at the Kohl Center, the Badgers struggled from the line and lost by two as a result, so should Wisconsin turn around its performance at the charity stripe, it might just have what it takes to knock off the Spartans.
That's still a long way down the road, and the Badgers have to take care of business beforehand, but there are several winnable games for Wisconsin up to that point. This team always manages to keep it close thanks to its defense, which gives it a shot to win on any given night.
Still, the Badgers need to answer the questions previously mentioned in a positive manner for this dream to become a reality. Stay tuned, because it's sure to be a thrilling finish in the B1G.