The National Championship Chances Of Wisconsin Basketball

The Wisconsin basketball team clinched a share of the Big Ten title yesterday with a 68-61 win over Michigan State, in the atmosphere of a noisy Kohl Center, of which I was in attendance for. In a college basketball culture that has mostly lost interest in conference championships, the Big Ten still cares. Nobody left their seats for the trophy presentation and subsequent video tribute to the four graduating seniors, including Player of the Year candidate Frank Kaminsky.

But now let’s get to the question typical fans around the rest of the country do care about—can this Wisconsin basketball team win the national championship?
Frank KaminskyI see Wisconsin’s situation as very combustible in March. I like the way they match up with the top teams in the country, including undefeated Kentucky.
However, we also know that nationally elite teams (seeded #1 or #2 in their regional come tourney time) get taken out in March all the time. I see Wisconsin as perhaps the likeliest of the top seven or eight teams to get their hearts broken on the tournament’s opening weekend.
Let’s start with the latter assertion. Wisconsin is not a great defensive basketball team, as they’ve often been in years past under Bo Ryan. They rank 47thth in defensive efficiency, which measures points per possession (essentially adjusting defense for pace of play and better measuring a team’s ability to get a stop when they really need one). More than anything else, that leaves you vulnerable by the Saturday/Sunday game of the NCAA Tournament’s first weekend.
By the time you narrow the field down to the best 32 teams in the country, everyone has players who can shoot. What’s needed is the ability to put those shooters under serious duress, something Kentucky and Virginia can both do at an extremely high level. Those teams are in position to survive a poor shooting game themselves because no team seeded in the 7 thru 10 range (where all the opponents for the top two seeds will come from) will put up a lot of points against them.
Wisconsin can’t say that, and it’s going to require a top offensive effort each time out in the NCAA Tournament. The good news is that the Badgers are the best in the nation at offensive efficiency, and even on the defensive side, they don’t commit fouls. I’m not saying that an upset is likely, just that the Badgers do have a vulnerability here that some other elite teams don’t have.
Another thing that concerns me is the hidden intangible of NCAA basketball and it’s plain old luck, and getting the right bounce in close games. Wisconsin survived two hair-raising games en route to the Final Four last season.
One of them came in the Round of 32 against Oregon. In spite of playing in front of a home-neutral crowd in Milwaukee, Wisconsin needed to rally from behind and to eventually pull it out on a sequence where they got four straight offensive rebounds and finally a back-breaker trey from now-departed Ben Brust. The other was a one-point overtime win over Arizona in the regional final.
The bounce of the ball is fickle and it’s tough to get it two years in a row—ask Wichita State, who ran to the Final Four in 2012 as a 9-seed, but lost in the Round of 32 last year when they were undefeated. It’s not that consecutive Final Four trips are unthinkable—Louisville did it in 2012-13, even Butler pulled it off in 2010-11 to pick a couple recent examples. But Wisconsin fans should be alert to the fact that we may need to overcome some bad bounces on the way this time rather than getting them.

That’s the negative side of the story, and why I’m exceptionally nervous about that first weekend. But there’s a flip side too, and it’s that I really believe the Badgers match up well with Kentucky if it comes to that—and if they match up well with Kentucky, then UW can match up with anyone.
Kentucky is used to completely locking down teams defensively. But even assuming a solid defensive effort from the Wildcats, is it unthinkable that Wisconsin could score 60 points? It’s certainly not a guarantee, and would be a battle. But the Badgers have size down low, with Kaminsky, helping neutralize some of Kentucky’s shotblockers. Nigel Hayes and Sam Dekker also have good size at forward and Wisconsin can play a big lineup without losing offensive flow.
If the Badgers get to 60, it won’t be easy for offensively challenged teams to match that, in spite of the Wisconsin defensive issues. The fact the Badgers don’t foul, mean opposing offenses will have to earn every point, and a team like Kentucky—and Virginia, who is a poor man’s version of the ‘Cats—have real problems on the offensive end.
I should point out that I don’t think Kentucky is worse offensively than the teams Wisconsin might play in the second game, when I’m concerned about the upset. But in both cases, I’m adjusting for expectations.
It’s going to be extremely interesting to see what happens with the Badgers. But at the very least—at the absolute minimum—this Wisconsin basketball team has a Big Ten championship, and over a two-year cycle they have both a conference title and Final Four trip. Not bad at all.