The Green Bay Packers might be gone from the NFL playoffs, but the good people in my home state of Wisconsin still have college basketball to look forward to. Both Wisconsin and Marquette, after seeming to be in rebuilding years, are off to 3-0 starts in the Big Ten & Big East conference schedules. Is this is a case of the rebuilding being done quickly, or is it a mid-January mirage? Are the Badgers & Golden Eagles just NCAA Tournament teams or are they capable of more? With Wisconsin basketball preparing for a big game tonight in Indiana, we’ll take this moment to evaluate not only the Badgers, but their in-state rivals.
Wisconsin was not only rebuilding, but they were hit by injuries when guard Josh Gasser was lost for the year. The non-conference portion of the schedule was disappointing, albeit not disastrous. The Badgers lost the four signature games they played—Florida, Creighton, Virginia and the rivalry battle with Marquette, but they didn’t lose any game they should have won.
The problems Bo Ryan’s team had was an uncharacteristic one—defense. In all four losses, the opponent shot over 45 percent from the floor. While the Badgers had some issues with rebounding, that wasn’t unusual for a team whose post players are known for their ability to step out and hit the three-point shot.
Jared Berggren is the latest example of a big man with a soft shooting touch. The 6’10” senior is the leading scorer at 13 ppg, and hits 38 percent from behind the arc. Wisconsin also gets good long-range bombing from Ben Brust, who has not yet defined the outer limits of his range. A talented freshman forward in Sam Dekker is similarly able to open up defenses. Having a guard, forward and center all able to connect from behind the arc gives an offense a lot of versatility and that’s something Ryan’s teams have become known for.
What the Badgers are lacking is consistency at the other spots. Ryan Evans is a senior forward with good athletic ability inside and off the dribble. He’s a pretty good rebounder, at eight per game. But his outside shooting has been abominable and his free-throw shooting has been worse. Sophomore guard Traevon Jackson is a similar liability from behind the arc. The bad three-point shooting of Evans and Jackson wouldn’t be such a big deal if not for the fact that they attempt threes in roughly the same proportion as Brust, Dekker and Berggren. Either that shot distribution needs to become more top-heavy, or the role players have to show they can make the shot.
Wisconsin opened Big Ten play with less-than-inspiring wins over Penn State and Nebraska. The Badgers survived the woeful Nittany Lions at home because they attempted 26 free throws to Penn State’s one. And the UW defense again allowed an opponent to break the 45 percent threshold from the floor. The defense tightened up against Nebraska in a 47-41 road win. It might have been ugly, but a game won with defense and better rebounding was something Ryan’s team needed.
That all set the stage for Saturday and a visit from 12th-ranked Illinois. At long last, the Badgers played their best game of the season. They shot 49 percent from the floor and connected on 10/23 from three-point range, with Jackson joining the team’s best players in hitting from downtown. Berggren and forward Mike Brusewitz owned the glass, just as they had at Nebraska, and the Illini were held to 35 percent shooting.
It’s obviously unrealistic to see a game as complete as the one Wisconsin played on Saturday as a template for future success. What is realistic is to note that this is now two straight good defensive efforts turned in by the Badgers and two straight games where the Bruesewitz/Berggren combination have been cleaning up on the glass. It’s also realistic to point out that Ryan has a track record of getting his team to come together in time for the Big Ten schedule
So when will we know how good this Wisconsin team is? I’d say by the end of next week. It’s not fair to put an expectation of winning at Indiana on the Badgers, although if they get beat badly tonight and then play poorly in Iowa on Saturday, we might rush a negative verdict. More likely, we need to point out at next week’s two home games with Michigan State and Minnesota. A sweep and the Badgers are a dark-horse conference championship contender. A split and they’re a nice NCAA Tournament team, probably around the 8-9 seed level. Go 0-2 and they’re fighting for their NCAA lives.
MOVING ON TO MARQUETTE
Marquette is a guard-heavy team built around junior Vander Blue, who’s averaging 14 points per game. The offense is run by Junior Cadougan, averaging five assists per game. It’s similar in structure to last year’s team, which relied on heavily on graduated Darius Johnson-Odoms. The ultimate success of the Golden Eagles though, will be determined by whether they get any help down low and that’s where juniors Jamil Wilson and Davante Gardner—particularly Gardner—come into the picture.
The non-conference schedule was marked by a one-point loss to Butler in Hawaii, but MU played well in that game. The difference was Butler had better frontcourt-backcourt balance and consequently committed fewer turnovers. An 82-49 loss to Florida saw pretty much everything go wrong. Most disappointing was a two-point loss to UW-Green Bay, where Marquette shot just 4-of-9 from the free throw line.
But the win over Wisconsin showed what the Golden Eagles could do when both Cadougan and Blue were hitting in tandem, and they got another decent win over LSU. The 84-80 home triumph marked the first notable game from Gardner, who had 19 points and Marquette showed they’d learned how to hit free throws, connecting on 24-of-25.
The early Big East games have all been nail-biters, two in overtime and one by a single point. In a home win over UConn, Gardner’s 18 points gave the Golden Eagles the decisive edge in a game where both teams’ backcourts played well. Another home game against Georgetown was won thanks to a rebounding advantage, although in this case it was unheralded guard Trent Lockett chasing down ten boards in an ugly 49-48 final.
Then this past weekend, Marquette outplayed Pitt on the road. Only some hot three-point shooting from Panther forward Lamar Patterson kept MU from closing it out without overtime, but even more heartening for Marquette fans was that they won on the road without much from Cadougan. Gardner continued his good play of late, Wilson stepped up with 11 points and reserve guard Todd Mayo helped where Cadougan couldn’t.
Marquette is gradually becoming more balanced and has a soft part of the schedule coming up. Over the next two weeks they have home games with Seton Hall, Providence and South Florida. MU needs to win all three, and then see what happens this coming Saturday night in Cincinnati. After that stretch of games, the real tests begin, with a Super Bowl Sunday date in Louisville.
There’s still questions to be answered for both Wisconsin and Marquette, but after low preseason expectations and some December concerns, it might not be such a long winter in this state after all.