Wisconsin Badgers: Three Facets To Improve Before Big Dance

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Wisconsin Badgers: Three Facets To Improve Before Big Dance
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After watching Wisconsin dismember, demoralize, and downright dominate the Michigan State Spartans Tuesday night, it's hard to even think of criticisms for the Badgers.

In defeating the No. 5 Spartans 67-49, No. 16 Wisconsin played perhaps their most complete game of the year. They shot over 50 percent from the field and played stifling defense against a team that averages over 70 points a game, holding Michigan State to a season-low in points.

Witnessing a performance like that would silence any critic.

But, alas, despite the resounding victory, Wisconsin's third win at home against a top-five opponent, there are some aspects of their game that could be improved.

And if one looks ahead at their upcoming schedule, it's obvious that the Badgers have weathered the storm that was the first half of their Big Ten schedule. Not to say the rest of their games are easy by any means, but they will certainly give Wisconsin a chance to shore up some of things that could haunt them in the NCAA Tournament.

Now, the only real criticism writers and fans have ever had of Bo Ryan's Badgers is the fact that they never make it far in the Big Dance. Sure, they reached the Elite Eight in 2005 and the Sweet 16 two years ago, but other than that, they've been somewhat of a disappointment when you consider the quality of teams they've had.

As Wisconsin heads into the homestretch, here are a few things they need to work on if they hope to make a run to the Final Four.

1. Establish a consistent inside presence

It's been harped on all year long, but the fact remains the same: If Wisconsin wants to make a run, they need to develop an inside presence.

Now, obviously this facet of their game was greatly damaged when Jon Leuer went down in early January with a broken wrist. But even then, Wisconsin's inside presence was weak.

Leuer was the only one on the team that actually worked the inside like a big man should, but on occasion, even he drifted to the outside for long periods of time.

The Badgers' only other true big man, Keaton Nankivil, has not been the presence inside that Wisconsin needs. His ability to shoot the three-ball was what kept Wisconsin in the game against Purdue, but despite his shooting touch, that's not his game. At 6'8", he needs to establish himself down-low, especially with Leuer gone.

And even if Leuer does manage to break back into the lineup by mid-March, it will take a while for the rust to wear off. His return would be huge for this team's morale, but his play would probably be limited and his production even more so.

Having big men work outside is part of Wisconsin's swing offense, but come tournament time, the Badgers can't rely on three-point shooting every time down the court. If no inside presence is developed by March, it could be another premature exit for Wisconsin in the Big Dance.

 

2. Bench players (and Jarmusz) need to step up

Not counting the play of point guard Jordan Taylor (who started the year on the bench, but is now a starter due to Leuer's injury), Wisconsin's production off the bench has been dismal.

Although sophomores Ryan Evans and Rob Wilson have shown flashes of brilliance, the reality is they are only averaging 4.1 and 3.4 points a piece, respectively.

And unless Taylor goes back to being the sixth man with Leuer's potential return, that's basically it.

Jared Berggren and Mike Bruesewitz, the only other players on the Wisconsin roster to get any minutes off the bench, average 1.4 and 1.1 points, respectively. And they're really only playing because Wisconsin needs all the size it can get with Leuer's absence.

Tim Jarmusz, Wisconsin's starting small forward, averages under three points a game, and, not to sound too cruel, is basically useless. Although he's not technically a bench player, he certainly plays like one. He comes out of the game extremely often, in favor of either Evans or Wilson, and when he's in the game, he never truly seems in sync. His shooting is abysmal and his defense is lackluster.

Although Wisconsin's starters have performed admirably given the fact that their rest is limited, the bench needs to step up. Fresh legs only last so long and as the season winds down, starters aren't going to be able to go almost 40 minutes every game.

In the tournament, each team plays two games in three days (assuming an opening round win), which makes bench play more crucial than ever. Having fresh legs that are undependable doesn't do any good.

 

3. Learn to win in a hostile environment

No, playing a neutral game in the NCAA Tournament isn't going to be like heading into the Breslin Center or Mackey Arena, but it's not going to be the Kohl Center either.

In all five of Wisconsin's losses this year, they've been away from Madison. Even in their wins, they haven't looked nearly as good as they do at home.

That comparison may not be entirely fair though, because virtually no team in the nation looks as good as Wisconsin does in the Kohl Center. They're 13-0 at home this year and despite playing poorly at times, always seem to get it done. I don't know if it's the crowd noise, sleeping in your own bed the night before, or the Grateful Red cheering them on, but something about the Kohl Center just brings out the best in Wisconsin.

That said, Wisconsin has struggled on the road this year. Their losses to Gonzaga (in Hawaii), UW-Green Bay (are you kidding?), Michigan State, Ohio State, and Purdue were all away from the Kohl Center and in all five of those losses, Wisconsin played pretty ugly games.

They'll need to learn to somehow bottle that home environment mentality if they hope to make a run.

Wisconsin certainly has the potential to go some distance in the Big Dance. Although the aforementioned improvements will be vital to their postseason success, with their trio of guards and a potentially healthy Jon Leuer, teams will not want to see the Badgers in their bracket.

Even a nitpicker knows that.

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