It’s a good thing the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team is having a bounce-back season.
If the Badgers hadn’t recovered from their first losing season since the 1990s by getting out of the gate impressively this season, the Big Ten Conference season, which re-opened this week after a one-month sabbatical, might have taken a serious toll on the program.
The Big Ten is that good. And its new 20-game conference season is that long.
Indeed, a year after it put only four teams in the NCAA tournament, the Big Ten might be the strongest conference in the country. This isn’t some preseason conference media-day boasting by the coaches, either. The Big Ten is loaded and the performance during the non-conference season proved it.
* The conference had a 121-32 record against non-conference opponents. The 79.1 winning percentage edged the Big 12 and ACC for No. 1 in the nation.
* The conference could have up to 10 NCAA tournament teams. In the latest brackets put out by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, only Northwestern, Penn State, Rutgers and Illinois weren’t in the field.
* The conference had the fewest bad losses in non-conference play. It dropped only six games to teams that weren’t from the other five power conferences and one of those was to Gonzaga. Moreover, five of the six losses to mid-major opponents were by the bottom four teams in the conference, with UW’s loss at Western Kentucky the only such loss by one of the top 10 teams.
* In the latest NCAA NET rankings, the conference had six teams in the top 21, nine in the top 35 and Minnesota at 52. Usually, a ranking of 50 is the magic number for teams making the NCAA tournament.
With its 8-3 non-conference record and 2-0 start in those early December Big Ten games, UW put itself squarely in the mix for a Big Ten title. Of course, eight or nine other teams had reason to feel the same way. Combined with the 20-game conference schedule, the final two months of the regular-season figure to be a grind for every team.
If the Badgers didn’t know their task was going to be tougher than ever in the Big Ten this season, they do now. Thursday night, Minnesota showed up at the Kohl Center and hung a 59-52 defeat on 22nd-ranked UW in the first of an 18-game march to, well, March.
It didn’t matter that UW had beaten the Gophers eight consecutive games. Minnesota is long and athletic and has an emerging star in junior guard Amir Coffey. Like almost every team in the Big Ten this season, it is a tough out.
UW had better get used to it because every team in the Big Ten presents problems and every game is going to be a battle. Home or away, if the Badgers don’t play up to their capabilities, they’ll struggle to win. Just like Thursday night.
“That was said before the game about how this is one of the best years for the Big Ten in awhile, where every night you’re not going to have any (easy) games,” center Ethan Happ said. “That was proven to us tonight. If we don’t come ready to play, it’ll be the same thing against Penn State.”
UW plays Sunday at Penn State. A good rule of thumb for Big Ten contenders is win out at home and split on the road. This year, that formula would give a team a 15-5 record, which might be good enough to be there at the end.
After a loss Thursday in which it was awful on offense in a 14-point first half and had some critical turnovers and missed free throws late in the second half, UW is already down one game at home.
“Any year going through the Big Ten you want to hold serve at home as much as possible,” coach Greg Gard said. “But every game’s important. Everybody knows how hard it is to win on the road. We’ve been able to do that last month. Home is one thing, but it’s one of the 20 games that you let slip away. We’ve got to find a way to get better regardless of where we play. … You definitely want to win them at home, but it’s a long gauntlet and hopefully you can get a few on the road as well to balance anything that maybe slips away from you at home.”
Coming on the heels of a 83-76 loss at Western Kentucky, the Minnesota loss was troubling because the 3-point shooting was poor in both games. When teams double-team Happ in the post, like Minnesota did in the first half, the outside shooters can’t go 2-for-14 like they did from 3-point range against the Gophers.
One thing UW needs to do is get more players attacking the basket and getting to the free throw line.
“I was probably more concerned after Saturday than today just because defensively is where we hang our hat and we were much better tonight,” Gard said. “We’ve got to put the ball in the basket. That’s an obvious statement I’m making there. But defensively we were back to doing some better things. Not perfect, but both halves were below 1.0 (points per possession), which is our benchmark. It just puts so much more pressure on your defense when you’re not able to score. … This group has a will and a fight. We’ll make shots. We’ve got to get to the free throw line. … That’s a mentality and an aggressiveness at the rim we need to continue to evolve and get better with.”
The Badgers had better find some offensive consistency because in the next two months almost every game is going to be just like this one.