At the end of conference play, the Wisconsin Badgers didn't appear to be heading in the right direction. Ugly losses to Purdue on Senior Day and Michigan State in East Lansing gave off the impression that the Badgers would be the victim of an early exit in the NCAA tournament.
But then came the Big Ten tournament, where Wisconsin pulled off upsets on consecutive days against Michigan and Indiana. The Badgers couldn't quite pull off the trifecta in the final against Ohio State, but nevertheless, they were able to build some momentum leading up to Selection Sunday. At the very least, the Badgers helped improve their seed to a five thanks to some impressive victories, although they may have deserved a better fate.
Wisconsin has the ability to beat anyone on any given night, but it can also play down to its opponent. In order for the Badgers to make a deep run or even win the 2013 NCAA tournament, it will need to achieve everything listed on this blueprint.
This continues to be an issue for Wisconsin and was glaringly evident over the last six minutes of the Big Ten tournament final against the Buckeyes.
Leads have slipped away and close games have gotten away from the Badgers numerous times this season because of their inability to put the ball in the basket. The competition they faced in the Big Ten certainly had something to do with that, but it won't get any easier in the later rounds of the tournament.
Because the Badgers don't vary their looks on offense, it makes it easy for opponents to key in on Wisconsin and shut down their biggest scoring threat. Just about anyone in the Badgers' normal rotation can lead the team in scoring, but no one has stepped up to be the player everyone looks at to stop a drought.
Wisconsin's defense has kept it in nearly every game this season, but the lack of a go-to scorer on the roster may result in the Badgers' demise this March.
Oftentimes, tournament games go down to the wire and are won or lost by free-throw shooting. Wisconsin, a team that often takes care of business from the charity stripe, has struggled as a team this season from the line.
What could really wind up hurting the Badgers is having Ryan Evans on the court in situations where the opponent is forced to foul. Wisconsin has tried to do an offense-defense rotation with Evans and Dekker in the past, but even Dekker isn't exactly automatic when shooting free throws.
It's not as if the Badgers can just snap their fingers and become a better free-throw shooting team. Evans has tried just about everything to return to his former self at the line, including taking jump shots, but that hasn't really improved his efficiency.
There's no doubt Bo Ryan will dedicate some practice time to free throws, but it will take the extra effort from his players on their own time to get up some extra shots from the line, or else missing the freebies will end up costing Wisconsin its season.
The Badgers simply don’t have a player with a polished inside game, and that leads to more three-point attempts taken than most teams in the tournament field. Oftentimes, getting hot from outside is what leads to upsets in the tournament, but hoisting so many threes can also be detrimental.
Wisconsin was able to find its stroke in the second half against Michigan and continue that into its victory over Indiana, but against Ohio State, the Badgers only made 3 of 18 attempts from three. This issue can go hand in hand with the Badgers’ failure to score for extended periods of time.
Players like Sam Dekker and Ben Brust can consistently knock down outside shots, but they typically aren’t the ones with the ball in their hands with the shot clock winding down. This is often when the Badgers shoot, and while Traevon Jackson has shown the ability to come through in the clutch, he’s not a very efficient scorer.
A three-point basket is a great way to shift momentum and end a scoring skid, so the Badgers need to find a way to get their sharpshooters more involved in the offense.
Bo Ryan has used an eight-man rotation for the majority of the 2012-13 season, but Dekker is the only bench player to see extended minutes. He has the ability to put the team on his back and catch fire for spurts to help propel the Badgers over the top.
However, George Marshall and Frank Kaminsky, the other players who see minutes off the bench, are mainly used just to spell the starters for a short period of time. Wisconsin isn’t a deep team, but the Badgers don’t take a hit with Marshall and Kaminsky on the floor and could be used more often to help get the team out of notable scoring droughts.
Ryan seems to ride and trust his starters to get the team out of a rut, and this is because he values defense over all else. Perhaps in the tournament, Ryan will be willing to sacrifice some defense at times to avoid stretches of incompetence on the offensive end. To do that, Marshall, Kaminsky and even Dekker need to see more of the court.
It may be frustrating to watch Wisconsin at times—or at all times—because of its unwillingness to get up and down the floor, but it’s for good reason. Whenever the Badgers are able to lure their opponent into the slow, grind-it-out type of game, they give themselves a chance to win against anybody.
Wisconsin even surprises some people when it is able to keep up with opponents that increase the tempo, but that’s just not its game. The Badgers find themselves in trouble when they are in a track meet.
Using up every second of the shot clock has its defects, like passing up an open jump shot in order to control the pace of the game. But somehow, it continues to work because some teams struggle in a half-court offense.
The Badgers will run if they need to in the NCAA tournament, but that either means they are losing or have lost control of the game. Slow and steady will win the race if Wisconsin can continue playing lockdown defense and pass, pass, pass until it can get the best possible look on offense.