A week after Groundhog Day, a team of Badgers returned from an underground hibernation session of their own. Unranked Wisconsin, mired in a 2-5 slump, squeaked past Big Ten leader Michigan State in a 60-58 thriller in Madison, Wis. on Sunday afternoon.
The win serves notice that these Badgers—who started the season 16-0—are still a serious factor on the B1G schedule. By itself, though, it can hardly erase the memory of losses to also-rans such as Minnesota and Northwestern.
The key question for Bo Ryan, then, is how to keep this version of Wisconsin—the one that beat Florida and St. Louis early on—from retreating into its hole for six more weeks of upset losses. Fortunately for him, the strengths Wisconsin showed in beating Michigan State also show why the Badgers are ready (despite some genuine flaws) to resume their place as contenders.
One major basis for fear of a relapse is the Badgers' extreme reliance on three-point shooting. In beating the Spartans, nearly half of the team's total field goals (nine out of 19) came from beyond the arc. When they go cold from long range—5-for-20 against Minnesota, 3-for-17 against Ohio State—they've had very little recourse.
Then, too, Ryan's usual impervious defense has shown some unaccustomed cracks. At 63.3 points allowed per game, Wisconsin is 33rd in the country—far from a weak showing but not the top-10 performance that's become the norm in Madison.
However, on balance, there are legitimate grounds for believing that Wisconsin can sustain its recovery beyond one buzzer-beating victory over a banged-up team. Indeed, Traevon Jackson, the junior PG who buried the game-winning pull-up, is a big part of what makes the Badgers a bona fide threat.
Jackson heads a veteran backcourt (also featuring Ben Brust and Josh Gasser) that has been making huge plays in late-game situations for the last two seasons. Few teams in the country are as dangerous in the final seconds, because few teams have so many players with a history of coming through in the clutch.
The Big Ten Network reminds its Twitter audience that this isn't Jackson's first time in the spotlight.
Jackson and his running mates are also extraordinary perimeter rebounders: The trio combined for 15 boards against Michigan State. That strength helps compensate for a frontcourt pairing (Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker) that has size but not bulk.
Then, too, the defense looked worse during the intra-conference slump than it really is. As the Badgers showed against Michigan State, they're still eminently capable of locking down even a very good team.
Not only did they hold the Spartans 20 points below their average, but they clamped down on conference scoring leader Gary Harris, harrying him into a nightmarish 3-of-20 shooting day.
However, the most important reason to think that Wisconsin has turned a corner in the long term is the emergence of freshman Nigel Hayes. The burly sixth man has now scored 45 points in his last three games, and he's tailor-made to mitigate some of the Badgers' biggest weaknesses.
Where Kaminsky and Dekker challenge opposing big men with long arms and tipped rebounds, the 250-pound Hayes can body up on dreadnoughts who can brush off the other two. He may not get many boards himself, but he can keep the other team's blue-collar guys from making their plays: Witness the one rebound amassed by the Spartans' trio of Matt Costello, Alex Gauna and Gavin Schilling.
Vitally, Hayes also gives the Badgers a legitimate post scorer, a role in which Dekker has proven neither comfortable nor effective. With a genuine offensive threat down low, the floor opens up for Wisconsin's three-point shooters and makes the entire team far more dangerous.
As The Badger Nation notes via Twitter, the freshman's value hasn't been lost on his head coach, either.
Bo: 'I've said a couple times, for those who care to listen, Nigel is pretty special.' #Badgers— Benjamin Worgull (@TheBadgerNation) February 9, 2014
Now that Hayes is on track, the rest of Wisconsin's considerable assets will have an easier time showing through. A bad enough shooting night can still sink them—just as it can almost any team—but this is no longer a squad to be taken lightly in the battle for Big Ten supremacy.