Somehow — perhaps with precise recruiting that locates great shooters and talent-neutralizing defenders — Wisconsin basketball has worked its way into jokes involving death and taxes and life’s other inevitables.
Since coach Bo Ryan took over before the 2001-02 season, Wisconsin has never finished lower than fourth in the Big Ten, making the NCAA tournament all 12 years.
Maybe that’s why the idea of simply competing in the perennially tough conference sounds a little old hat to the current Badgers, and why the public conversation has shifted from jabber about how Wisconsin will manage to be good, again, to talk about how they so quickly have become great in 2013-14.
“We figured why not?” sophomore forward Sam Dekker said. “Why can’t it be us? We usually go towards the top 15, 20 every year, but why not push ourselves to a top five? We feel like we have the group to do it.”
The Big Ten basketball season opens Tuesday, and unbeaten Wisconsin certainly looks like a serious contender for the conference title, which the Badgers actually haven’t won since 2008 and have done only three times in Ryan’s tenure.
But after Indiana finished as the top team a season ago, and Michigan tied with Wisconsin for fourth place (behind Ohio State and Michigan State, which tied for second), there’s been a bit of a flip heading into January.
There are plenty of familiar faces (Hello, No. 5 Michigan State and No. 3 Ohio State, fancy seeing you again), but there has been some early shake-up as well. Indiana and Michigan — extremely young squads touted as top-25 teams early on — have struggled through their nonconference schedules, with the Wolverines playing inconsistently (staying toe-to-toe with No. 1 Arizona at home, but losing to Charlotte on a neutral court) and the Hoosiers falling short against some talented foes (No. 10 Connecticut, No. 2 Syracuse and Notre Dame). Iowa has been an early feel-good story, with the Hawkeyes defeating Notre Dame and Xavier while playing Villanova and Iowa State close before losing.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin, which is No. 3 in the RPI rankings according to ESPN.com, has plowed through every challenge, including now No. 12 Florida, on the way to its best start in the modern era. At 13-0, with seven victories over top-100 teams according to Kenpom.com, Wisconsin has catapulted from No. 20 in the preseason Associated Press rankings to No. 4, and sits on top of this year’s Big Ten. The players have started to talk about claiming not only the Big Ten title, but perhaps one of the NCAA tournament variety as well — something the school hasn’t done since 1941.
“It has been a challenging schedule in a lot of ways — different styles, different types of teams, some pretty good individuals,” Ryan said. “Our guys have done a pretty good job of concentrating on the fact that ‘OK, 40 minutes, the next 40 minutes, that’s the most important.’ ”
The challenge begins
It helps that a largely turned-over squad has picked up right where the graduating veterans left off. Despite losing all three frontcourt starters, Wisconsin has managed to outrebound opponents by 4.8 boards per game. The Badgers, without the same size and natural post players as a year ago — Jared Berggren, Mike Bruesewitz and Ryan Evans all used up their eligibility — have relied on rebounding by committee, with every starter averaging at least 4.4 rebounds a game.
“It’s definitely a big point of pride,” said Dekker, who gained 10 pounds of muscle over the summer and has transformed into a more imposing player in the paint, while still proving to be a capable perimeter shooter. “Those guys that graduated last year, they set the bar pretty high for us with the things they did in their careers, the wins they got, the accolades they got. But you always need to try to raise the bar another step up.”
As with any truly good team, all the pieces seem to be clicking right now. The defense, as usual, has been solid, with the Badgers holding opponents to a 42 percent field-goal percentage. Long holding the reputation of a good-shooting team, Wisconsin has shot nearly 40 percent from three-point range. The freshmen have been outstanding and immediately contributed, with power forward Nigel Hayes playing solid defense and averaging 5.5 points and 1.8 rebounds, and guard Bronson Koenig — who Ryan says “sees the floor as well as any guard we’ve ever had” — providing another reliable option off the bench. And point guard Josh Gasser, returning from an ACL injury before last season, has been everything the Badgers hoped, guiding the team smoothly and displaying the same toughness that got him back on the court.
“I’ve never seen a guy more dedicated,” Ryan said. “He’s just a tough young man who takes every assignment and gives it his best. He’s really been key to us this year.”
This year, the Badgers are hoping to write a new joke, one that Wisconsin basketball is changing — from a steady competitor to a stunning threat to win it all. Despite a gritty schedule that Dekker said prepared the team for the grind of the Big Ten, the real challenges for Wisconsin start now.
“Every night is a battle,” Dekker said. “If you slip up, it can change the whole complexion of things. I think this will definitely keep us aware and always on our feet because we’ve got to be ready at any moment. Any team can knock us off.