Unless you are a Wisconsin alum, from the Big Ten or a former coach, you may not much enjoy watching the Wisconsin Badgers play basketball. Since Bo Ryan arrived as coach, they have always been good and pretty much a lock to contend in the Big Ten before booking a trip for a few games in the NCAA Tournament, but they don’t win pretty.
What, you need proof? Exhibit A was UW’s Big Ten Tournament opener against Penn State last season, a 36-33 Wisconsin loss that set offensive basketball back decades (the Lions led 18-2 after 10 minutes).
When was the last time you saw a team win a game when its leading scorer had nine points, like PSU’s Talor Battle did? The combined total of 69 points broke the Big Ten Tournament record for fewest points by a whopping 16—and of course Wisconsin was involved in that one, too.
Last year, UW went 13-5 in Big Ten regular-season play to finish third, before getting bounced in its tournament opener. Then, as a No. 4 seed, UW advanced to the Sweet 16 of the Big Dance, but lost to eventual finalist Butler to finish the season 25-9.
2011-12 Key Additions and Losses
Wisconsin watched three starters—the entire frontcourt—depart. Jon Leuer is easily the biggest loss, as he averaged team highs of 18.3 points and 7.2 rebounds per contest. No other player on the team averaged more than 4.2 rebounds. And the player who averaged those 4.2, Keaton Nankivil, is also gone. Leuer and Nankivil also led the team in blocks. Tim Jarmusz is the other departed starter.
Overall, the Badgers will look to replace 46 percent of the minutes played last season.
Meanwhile, there really aren’t any key additions expected to make a huge impact who didn’t suit up for at least some games last year.
Ryan doesn’t really lure top recruits, so the freshman most likely to have some role is actually redshirt freshman center Evan Anderson. But the 6-foot-10 Anderson was only all-state honorable mention as a senior in high school. But Wisconsin will at least need his size.
UW is No. 15 in the preseason Associated Press poll, and perhaps no top-25 team will rely more on one player than the Badgers will on senior point guard Jordan Taylor, who is arguably the best at his position in the nation. Taylor was an All-Big Ten pick and second-team All-American last year after leading the nation with a 3.83 assist-to-turnover ratio. He averaged 18.1 points per game and 4.7 assists per game overall and was third in the Big Ten with 20.1 points per game in conference play.
Taylor was one of five players named to this season’s AP preseason All-America first team, the only senior on the squad and only the second Badger to get that honor (Michael Finley).
Taylor's fellow starting guard Josh Gasser also returns. He averaged just 5.9 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.2 assists in nearly 29 minutes a game, and his 30.2 percent three-point shooting must improve. But Gasser showed some good signs, including recording the first triple-double in UW history with 10 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists in a late January game at Northwestern. He was the first Big Ten freshman with a triple-double since some guy named Earvin Johnson in 1977.
The other key returnees are forward Mike Bruesewitz, who started 13 games and averaged 19.9 minutes per game last season (he will slide into Leuer’s spot), small forward Ryan Evans, guard Rob Wilson and center Jared Berggren. Wilson is probably the first player off the bench unless Ryan wants to start a three-guard lineup.
The Badgers will return 53.6 percent of their scoring, 54.7 percent of their rebounding and 68.8 percent of their assists from 2010-11.
You know this team will be fundamentally sound because it always is. For example, last season Wisconsin led the nation turnovers per game (an NCAA-record at just 7.6) and free-throw percentage (81.8 percent).
The toughest stretch of UW’s non-conference schedule starts November 30 at top-ranked North Carolina in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, followed by a game versus preseason No. 21 Marquette a few days later.
The Badgers also play 2011 NCAA Tournament teams UNLV and Wofford and might also face tourney team BYU, depending on how the holiday Chicago Invitational shakes out.
Including Big Ten play, and if BYU and Wisconsin meet in the final of that holiday tournament, UW has 15 games scheduled against teams from last year’s big dance.
The Badgers open Big Ten play on December 27 by welcoming Nebraska to the conference, as the football program did. With the new 12-team Big Ten, the Badgers will face four conference schools just once in the regular season: Michigan, Purdue, Northwestern and Indiana.
I highly recommend you not bet against Wisconsin when the Badgers are at home. In 10 seasons under Ryan, Wisconsin is 152-11 (.933) overall at the Kohl Center and 78-6 (.929) in Big Ten games there. UW enters the season on a 19-game home winning streak. Its last loss was on February 9, 2010, against Illinois. That is UW’s only loss to an unranked Big Ten opponent at home under Ryan and its only home loss to any unranked team in the past five years.
2011-12 Predictions for College Basketball
Bodog lists Wisconsin as the third-favorite to win the Big Ten at 4/1, while the media and coaches project Wisconsin to finish second in the conference to Ohio State.
That seems a bit high for me, but it isn’t out of the question if Taylor stays healthy. If he gets hurt, things could go downhill in a hurry with no other proven go-to player.
UW is listed at 55/1 to win the national championship, but that’s just not going to happen. Another Sweet 16 trip is probably the best that can be expected.
Doc Moseman is the owner of Doc’s Sports college basketball picks Web site.