Wisconsin basketball: How much should we believe in the Badgers?
The Wisconsin Badgers are among the biggest surprise teams in the country given how low expectations were heading into the season. In Year 7, Greg Gard has proven to be at his best whenever his back is against the wall, and he has the Badgers in position to make a run as we inch closer to March.
Despite losing most of their key contributors from last season in addition to all sorts of controversies within the program, the Badgers have one of the best NCAA Tournament résumés in the country. They continue to rack up big wins — most recently at Michigan State on Tuesday night — with zero bad losses.
Wisconsin was projected to finish 10th in the B1G, but 13 games into a 20-game conference schedule, the Badgers (19-4, 10-3) are tied for first with Purdue and Illinois.
The expectations of what this team can be during March Madness have risen significantly. Let’s take a quick pulse check and see how far this team can go with just 7 more games to play during the regular season.
What has worked?
Coming off the bench as a freshman last season, Johnny Davis averaged just 7 points on a roster filled with upperclassmen. He was expected to develop into Wisconsin’s go-to guy and the leading scorer this season, but he exceeded expectations.
Davis is among the favorites to win the Wooden Award as the best player in the country, and any NBA mock draft you’ll find has him projected as a first-round pick despite his pro potential not being much of a discussion heading into the season. He scored 25 points in the big win over the Spartans earlier this week, and Davis is averaging 20.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.3 steals — all of which lead the team.
Brad Davison took advantage of a 5th season of college basketball and is having his best season yet as Wisconsin’s No. 2 scorer with 14.7 points per game. He is in a bit of a shooting slump at the moment, but it’s tough to imagine that will continue much longer. Davison set a program record for career 3-pointers and increased his 2-point percentage from 27.5% to 44.9% to this season.
Tyler Wahl has been a huge part of Wisconsin’s success in all areas despite not being at 100% due to injuries. He is a fantastic defender and crafty around the basket, and the Badgers need him to be operating at full health to maximize their ceiling. Chucky Hepburn is fearless as a freshman and has done more than hold his own against B1G competition.
Wisconsin has been excellent at winning close games, which is a huge attribute heading into tournament time. In games decided by 10 points or less, the Badgers are 15-1, and they’re 11-1 in games decided by 6 or less.
What hasn’t worked?
Despite a strong starting 5, the Badgers have not received a ton of production from their bench, which is why Wahl’s health is crucial to Wisconsin’s success the rest of the season. The starters log a ton of minutes, and it’s because nobody has stepped up to scare opponents off the bench.
Cincinnati transfer Chris Vogt averages the most minutes off the bench with 13.1 per game, and Lorne Bowman is the top scorer among the non-starters with just 3.3 points per game this season. If one of the starters is forced to miss time, the Badgers could be in trouble against quality programs.
Statistically, Wisconsin’s season-long team numbers do not look all that impressive, which is why some think the Badgers have gotten a bit lucky with how great their record is. Wisconsin is ranked No. 291 nationally in field goal percentage offensively and No. 213 in field goal percentage defensively.
In Joe Lunardi’s latest Bracketology update – which was updated prior to the Badgers win over Michigan State — Wisconsin was a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. That is on the lower end among the Bracketology world, and there’s plenty of room for movement for a higher or lower seed down the stretch.
Wisconsin has one of the most interesting résumés because the wins are great, but the efficiency ratings do not love the Badgers. No team in college basketball has more Quad 1 victories than Wisconsin, and all 4 losses came against Quad 1 opponents.
However, the Badgers will be dinged by the computers that do not think this is an elite team. In the most recent NET rankings, Wisconsin checks in at No. 19. The Badgers are 23rd in KenPom — 2 spots behind Iowa, which is 9th in the B1G with a 5-6 league mark. How much stock to put into computer numbers is up for debate, but Wisconsin will be one of the most highly debated teams because of the quality of teams the Badgers have both won and lost to.
For what it’s worth, the ratings loved Wisconsin last season at No. 14 in KenPom despite the Badgers falling way short of expectations with an 18-13 overall record including 10-10 in conference play. I’d much rather go into March with this year’s version of Wisconsin basketball than last.
Regardless of seeding, the Badgers’ ceiling for the NCAA Tournament should be high. Wisconsin will enter March Madness with a superstar who might be the best player in the tournament, and he could certainly carry the Badgers to a Final Four run. Considering Wisconsin hasn’t lost to a bad team all season, an early exit is unlikely. Even in a single-elimination format, anything less than a Sweet 16 appearance would be highly disappointing.
Considering the Badgers were not projected to be an NCAA Tournament team prior to the start of the season, Gard has Wisconsin in a great spot looking toward Selection Sunday.