Peaking before the NCAA tournament is possibly the most important and challenging aspect of college basketball. Depending on what brand of basketball a team plays, a lot goes into putting it all together down the stretch leading up to Selection Sunday.
For the Wisconsin Badgers, they appear to be hitting their stride and in general have played well during conference play against the premier competition. Momentum is everything in basketball, and now it comes down to how the Badgers can continue that high level of play heading into March.
It's taken a total team effort to go 5-4 against ranked opponents this season and for Wisconsin to position itself in the upper echelon of the Big Ten, so let's take a look at the five-step plan the Badgers must follow in order to stay hot and peak before the NCAA tournament.
With four games remaining in conference play, the Badgers sit two games out of first place in the Big Ten, and the schedule is quite favorable for Wisconsin.
Aside from what is sure to be a high-stakes showdown in East Lansing with Michigan State, the Badgers have the pleasure of hosting Nebraska and Purdue while closing out the season at Penn State, a team that has yet to win a conference game.
Based on the schedules of other teams in the Big Ten, Wisconsin could finish anywhere between first and fifth, but it's likely the Badgers will be able to secure a first-round bye for the conference tournament, which requires a top-four finish.
That should be No. 1 on the wish list for Wisconsin regarding the close of conference play, and the Badgers should expect to go 3-1 during this stretch. To lose to either of the three bottom-dwellers remaining on the schedule would be a huge letdown and create a hiccup that might not go away for the rest of the season.
Beating teams you're supposed to beat, including in the conference tournament, only helps build confidence, even if Wisconsin is unable to pull off the upset against the Spartans.
Wisconsin forward Sam Dekker is arguably the team's best player, even though he comes off the bench and is just a freshman.
Normally, it's in a team's best interest to utilize that player as much as humanly possible to give yourself the best chance to win. With Wisconsin and head coach Bo Ryan, it's rare to see a freshman receive much playing time, and Dekker averages the sixth-most minutes on the team at 22-per-game.
He's also the Badgers' fourth-leading scorer with 9.2 points-per-game, but when considering his field-goal percentage and accuracy from beyond the arc, Dekker is Wisconsin's best overall player on offense.
Yes, the Badgers lose a little on defense with Dekker on the floor in place of either Ryan Evans or Mike Bruesewitz, but it's a sacrifice Ryan has to be willing to make. In crunch time, Dekker has seen more of the court lately, and Ryan often platoons him with Evans on an offense/defense rotation.
Dekker could be a player the Badgers ride in the tournament, and if he can continue to play well—he's shooting 56.7 percent from the field and 46.7 percent from three in the past four games—then Wisconsin will be even more dangerous come March.
In the NCAA tournament, games are almost always close, and that's when teams need to step up from the free-throw line to put the final nail in the coffin.
That is an area the Badgers drastically need to improve, as it has cost Wisconsin a few games this season alone. As a team, the Badgers shoot 62.2 percent from the line, and those woes begin with senior forward Ryan Evans.
In close late-game situations, it's almost impossible to have Evans on the floor because of his 40.5 percent mark from the charity stripe, and this costs the Badgers on the defensive end. Evans is even considering taking jump shots for free throws to try and turn around his dreadful performance at the line.
While Evans is the biggest eyesore for Wisconsin at the line, other players have been turning it around as of late, so if Evans is able to figure things out, even if that means shooting like Rick Barry, free throws could become a non-issue for the Badgers.
Evans' presence on the floor is important for defense and rebounding even though he has been a liability on the offensive end, but knocking down his throws could be the key to Wisconsin making a deep run in the tournament.
Entering play Monday, the Badgers were ninth in all of Division I basketball in points allowed. They may have the best defensive front line in the country thanks to the shot-blocking ability of Berggren, the strength and athleticism of Evans and the scrappiness of Bruesewitz.
Because of Wisconsin's ability to play defense, it is able to stay in just about every game. The Badgers have only lost one game by more than 10 points—at Florida by 18 back on Nov. 14.
No signs point to the Badgers letting up on defense anytime soon, and because of their deliberate slow-paced offense, they are able to more often than not control the pace of the game, which in turn helps keep the scoring low.
It's pretty simple logic—by playing good defense, Wisconsin will give itself a chance to win night in and night out. If the Badgers can continue to play some of the best defense in the nation, they will be feeling fine prior to the start of the tournament on March 19.
The Badgers are one of the most outside oriented teams in college basketball. In fact, they have launched 600 three-point attempts on the season, which is good for over 22 a contest.
Shooting a high volume of threes leads to a lower field-goal percentage, although Wisconsin does have some effective three-point shooters in Ben Brust, Sam Dekker and George Marshall. Still, getting the ball closer to the basket typically makes it easier to score, and that's why the Badgers need to get Berggren down on the block.
He doesn't position himself down low enough, and when he's actually there, Wisconsin needs to feed him the rock more often. He has the best shooting percentage on the team, and that is largely due to his effectiveness in the post.
Berggren is nearly automatic when he gets a one-on-one matchup in the post, and by drawing more defenders' attention inside, it opens up more opportunities for Dekker and Brust to knock down outside shots. Shooting 22 three-pointers a night would be OK as long as most of them are open, and by getting Berggren the ball inside, that's exactly the kind of looks Wisconsin should get moving forward.
A more balanced approach on offense makes Wisconsin more unpredictable, and that would make an already scary team even more so before the Madness begins.