Many of the preseason prognosticators and pundits have been baffled by the ability of the Wisconsin Badgers to repeatedly perform above expectations.
As basketball season neared, the genius sitting in his evil lair took one look at Bo Ryan's roster full of unselfish yet solid basketball players, and says, "Yep, seventh. I pick the Badgers to finish seventh in the conference this season, maybe eighth."
And it also never fails. Come end of the conference season, Bo's boys will find a way to finish near the top.
With victories over Duke, Purdue, Arizona, and Maryland on their ever growing tournament resume, the Badgers find themselves at second in the conference, a game and half behind the Michigan State Spartans, with roughly two-thirds of the conference slate remaining.
One problem. Big man Jon Leuer is out indefinitely with a fractured wrist.
Leuer has been the Badgers only consistent inside presence, averaging over 15 points a contest, and the Badgers leading rebounder. Without him, the Badgers have struggled to establish an inside presence, or to play the efficient style to which followers of the Badgers have become accustomed.
In short, the absence of Leuer has left a gaping hole.
Here are three keys to the Badgers' continued success during his absence:
Big men must step up - This means YOU Keaton Nowherville—Nankivil, sorry. Nankivil has shown flashes of brilliance at time, throwing down thunderous dunks, and hitting three pointers at an alarming rate for a man of his 6'9" stature. But since Leuer's injury, Nankivil has not raised his scoring or rebounding totals.
In order to win against the likes of Purdue and Michigan State, and pretty much any road game in the Big Ten, Nankivil will have to establish himself as a consistent inside presence.
Trevon Hughes needs to start scoring earlier - Along with Nankivil scoring more, the Badgers need Trevon Hughes to take matters into his own hands a little earlier in the game while Leuer is out.
In Wednesday's game against Michigan, if it had not been for Hughes stepping up in the waning minutes of the contest, the Badgers would have suffered their first home loss of the season.
Hughes is a slasher, with the ability to penetrate and create off the dribble, or step back and hit the three.
While Coach Ryan's offence calls for everyone to get involved, in the absence of a productive player such as Leuer, it is incumbent upon Hughes to pick up some of the scoring slack and do so early in the game. He cannot continue to make brief flurries at the beginning and the end of games and expect to beat MSU and Purdue.
Perimeter shooting must improve - 4-24 from beyond the arc. Need I say more?
While these three keys are by no means an exhaustive list of improvements that must be made to compete in the conference, they will provide the Badgers a chance in every game, and until Leuer returns, that is just what is needed.