The Wisconsin men have split two tough road contests—win at Northwestern, loss at Ohio State—since Jon Leuer was sidelined with a left wrist injury. Splitting those road contests is hardly a sign that it is time to panic, however, this UW team is certainly not the same without the aforementioned Leuer.
In Leuer’s absence, Bo Ryan has gone to more of a four-guard lineup with Keaton Nankivil the only true post player in the starting rotation. This small lineup worked at Northwestern—thanks in part to Trevon Hughes carrying the team on his back the final five minutes—but some weaknesses were exposed during Saturday’s loss at Ohio State.
Coach Ryan’s new lineup provides more ball handling and athleticism on offense. However, the lack of a playmaker in the post made scoring difficult for UW as evidenced by its second lowest point total (51) of the season.
For all the good Keaton Nankivil does, his inability to collapse the defense made it difficult for the Badgers to manufacture a true inside-out game against the Buckeyes. Without a true post presence, the Badgers were left to rely on their guards to penetrate and dish.
This worked at times Saturday, but Ohio State’s defensive pressure often made it difficult for the Badger guards to get inside, relegating them to passing the ball around the perimeter and ultimately attempting contested shots late in possessions.
Wisconsin’s lack of size was exposed on the defensive end of the court as well. Ohio State’s athletic wing players, Evan Turner and David Lighty, were able to get to the rim almost at will. Even Jon Diebler, a player known mostly for his outside shooting prowess, was able to create some plays inside. When stopped short of the rim, Turner and Lighty were able to shoot over the shorter Badger defenders.
Jon Leuer is not necessarily noted as a shot blocker, but his height, length and athleticism would have made finishing inside a lot more difficult on the Buckeyes.
Any time a star player is not in the lineup the reserves must be relied upon to fill the void. As expected, Ryan Evans and Mike Bruesewitz have seen increased playing time the last two games. Evans has performed well during his redshirt freshman season, adding athleticism to the lineup and showing an ability to defend some of the better players in the nation.
However, he has looked overmatched and out of sync the last two games culminating in a scoreless performance in 13 minutes Saturday after scoring just two points in only six minutes of action Wednesday at Northwestern.
He provides constant hustle and has a knack for getting tough rebounds, but at this early juncture in his career, he is not polished enough to provide much of a scoring punch.
When Leuer went down, many Badgers fans felt the team would be fine, and cited his extended absence due to foul trouble in victories at home over Ohio State (without Evan Turner) and at Penn State as evidence the team could play without him on the floor. The difference in those games was that Leuer was still available and opponents had to game plan for him.
Evans and Bruesewitz were merely called upon to fill a few minutes until Leuer reentered the game. There wasn’t nearly as much pressure on them as there is now as they play a more primary role, attempting to make up for the 15 points and six rebounds per game averaged by their fallen teammate.
Of course two games do not make a season and I expect the Badgers will improve as they get more comfortable with their lineup and rotation changes.
Bo Ryan excels at making the most with what he has and he will find a way to fill Leuer’s void. Evans, Bruesewitz, and other guys like Rob Wilson and Jared Berggren will become more comfortable and productive as they gain valuable in-game experience.
The Badgers will also have the schedule turn in their favor, at least for a short time, as they return home for two games this week against Michigan and Penn State. Hopefully they get two solid victories with the young kids gaining confidence before they enter another difficult stretch when they travel to Purdue and welcome conference-leading Michigan State to the Kohl center in two weeks.
Without a healthy Jon Leuer, it is probably unreasonable to expect Wisconsin to win a share of the Big Ten title for the fourth time in Bo Ryan’s tenure. However, I still expect them to finish near the top of the conference.
Depending on how well his rehab goes, Leuer may be able to return in time for the end-of-season tournaments. If that does happen, with the team back at full strength and the reserves ready to play a bigger role, expect UW to make a good run in the NCAA tournament.