Much has been written the last two weeks about Wisconsin's ability to win without Jon Leuer in the lineup. Some feel the Badgers will struggle without him. Others believe they will be fine, listing various keys to Badgers victory.
The senior guards, Trevon Hughes and Jason Bohannon, will have to step up. Coach Bo Ryan will utilize valuable backups like Ryan Evans or Mike Bruesewitz. The three-point shots will have to fall in the absence of Leuer's inside presence.
All the statements above are true, and those things must happen for Wisconsin to factor in the Big Ten title chase. However, I believe the key to Wisonsin's success going forward is just as much mental as it is physical. The Badgers must remember to have fun.
Think back to the win over Duke in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge played earlier this season. As I watched a replay of that game recently, I was struck by how loose the Badger players appeared to be.
Their play was crisp. The offense was run methodically, but with purpose. Shots went up early or late in possessions without hesitation. The Badgers believed they belonged on the same court as Duke. They had nothing to lose. They were truly enjoying themselves.
Dare I say...they had swagger.
From there, Wisconsin played out the rest of its non-conference schedule with just one blip on its record (a bad loss in a rivalry game at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay).
The Badgers got off to a fast start in conference play with a convincing home win over Ohio State, won easily at Penn State, and lost a hard fought defensive battle at Michigan State.
A return home brought a win over recent nemesis Purdue (then fourth-ranked), and once again Bo Ryan had his team firmly planted in the middle of the Big Ten Conference title chase.
That's when everything seemed to change. Now, two-and-a-half weeks and four games after Jon Leuer broke a bone in his left wrist, the Badgers are still trying to fill Leuer's void.
Wisconsin continues to play its typical stingy defense. However, play on the offensive end has become tentative without Leuer. The crisp ball movement that was so impressive against Duke has been replaced with hesitation, leading to an over-reliance on jump shots.
Tentative play on offense has put Wisconsin in a tough predicament its last two games. Playing on their home court, the Badgers had to rally from 10-point and 16-point second half deficits against Michigan and Penn State, respectively.
After what should have been an easy week, the schedule gets tough for UW once again as they travel to Mackey Arena to play Purdue Thursday night.
To win this game, and remain in the conference title hunt, Wisconsin must get off to a fast start. Hughes and Bohannon must continue to produce and provide leadership. Key reserves Evans, Bruesewitz, and recent contributor Rob Wilson will have to provide production off the bench.
But more than anything, the Badgers must play free and easy, run their patented swing offense with precision, and shoot without hesitation. They must believe they can win tough games, with or without Leuer.
They must stay loose, have fun, and bring back the swagger.