January 29, 2010

UW at the league midway point

MADISON - Believe it or not, the Wisconsin men's basketball team has already played half of its Big Ten schedule. So, before the team opens the second half of league play, BadgerBlitz.com looks back at the games that were, the trends that mattered and what to expect for the remainder of the season.

What do we know about this team:

It's pretty obvious that any team coached by Bo Ryan is going to play hard on each and every possession of each and every game. It's simply the nature of the beast when it comes to Wisconsin basketball and frankly, that's the way the game is meant to be played.

So it should come as no surprise that this team, the same team that was picked to finish ninth by several in the media, is currently alone in second place in a conference that many people thought would be one of the toughest in the league.

At 16-5 overall and 6-3 in the conference, and with wins over the likes of Duke and Maryland outside of conference play and wins over Purdue, Michigan, Northwestern and Ohio State in conference, this Badger squad is not simply marching into March Madness, but it's blazing a trail.

People are going to realize that Wisconsin basketball, even without its best player in Jon Leuer, is not going to be an easy team to beat. They don't hurt themselves with costly turnovers or sloppy possessions. Instead, they force other teams into committing those errors. With that, UW will always have a chance to pull out a win. And something tells me that it doesn't really matter who they will play.

Remembering the first nine games of last year:

In case you forgot, Wisconsin endured a six-game losing streak early in conference play a season ago. Prior to that stretch of losing, no team had ever beaten a Ryan coached team in back-to-back games, let alone six in a row.

A key problem during that stretch was the way UW failed to close out a game. Several contests immediately come to mind (Marquette, Texas, Purdue, Minnesota, Northwestern and Iowa) when the Badgers were in position to win but didn't.

UW would buckle down the stretch, turn the ball over, play out of its style or miss easy and open looks that would allow the opponent back into the game. As a result, the Badgers were 3-6 through nine league games a season ago.

This year, however, the tables have turned. Not only is Wisconsin closing out games, it is doing so in incredible fashion. Of the nine games played so far in Big Ten play, UW has had to come from behind in games at Northwestern and home against Michigan and Penn State.

If this were the same team as a season ago, those three games probably would have resulted in a loss. Instead, behind some key leadership from Trevon Hughes, Jon Leuer and Jason Bohannon, as well as improved play from Jordan Taylor, this Badger team has put together some solid wins.

A lot of that success, and killer mindset the Badgers possess, can be directly traced back to a season ago and that nearly month-long slump. Instead of folding when down nine points at home against Michigan, or folding when down 16 points at home against Penn State, UW did exactly what many expected them to do. They came back. And now, with a 6-3 record in conference play, and an easier schedule looming in the second half, this Wisconsin team will not only make the NCAA tournament, but it will likely see itself as a No. 5 seed or better.

Impressive without Leuer:

Sure, when Leuer was in the lineup UW was probably playing its best basketball. They were moving the ball a bit better and most importantly, getting production inside. But without Leuer, UW has still been able to get some things done.

They have won on the road (at Northwestern) and came from behind against Michigan and Penn State. At the same time, they struggled to shoot the ball at Ohio State, but still had chances to close the gap and make it an interesting finish in a game they eventually lost by nine points.

Then, most recently, UW was in a prime position to steal a win at Purdue, but Hughes' runner just missed with one second remaining that would have given the Badgers a win. Still, without its best player in the lineup, Wisconsin has proven to be a formidable opponent for anyone it faces.

Just imagine what this team could become if Leuer is able to return this season and play at a level similar to what he was doing prior to the injury.

Emergence of Jordan Taylor

I'm not sure there were many Badger fans that watched Taylor play at times as a freshmen that thought he become as good as he is, as quick as he did. Early in the season, the sophomore point guard was the leading candidate for Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year.

Then, when Leuer went down, he moved to the starting lineup and continued to impress. For a player that has only been in the program for one and a half years to be ranked third in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio is borderline insane.

When you take a look at the individual numbers, they are even more eye-popping. Through 21 games this season, Taylor has 74 assists to only 19 turnovers. Those are incredible numbers for a player that averages more than 25 minutes per game. He is just a joy to watch because he always does the right things and plays a great all-around game.

Looking ahead:

When looking at the remaining Big Ten schedule, UW has only one ranked team left on it at this time. And that will be against Michigan State at home. Besides that, UW gets Illinois and Indiana twice, Northwestern and Michigan once more and Minnesota and Iowa.

It may not be realistic, but it's also not beyond the realm of possibilities for UW to win every one of them. Even if they were to slip up a couple of times, the schedule still sets up nicely for the Badgers to post a similar 6-3 record or even better in the second half of the schedule, especially if Leuer is able to return.

Player to watch down the stretch:

I remain very interested in the progress Taylor is making. He's seems incredibly comfortable on the court and you never expect him to make a bad decision. He's a perfect fit in Ryan's swing offense.

But perhaps the player I am most interested in is Rob Wilson. Since his 13-point explosion off the bench in a comeback win over Michigan, Wilson seems to be playing with a ton more confidence. Over the past three games, he has logged plenty of game action and is looking more comfortable on defense.

He is the type of player that could help the team get a few big wins with his silky smooth jumper and deceptive length on the defensive side of the ball.

Bold prediction:

Right now, UW is alone in second place in the conference, three games behind Michigan State. Even if the Badgers were to defeat the Spartans next week, I still think it will be tough for the Badgers to win the regular season title even with MSU's tough schedule down the stretch, because the Spartans are that tough of a team.

I am willing to say, though, should Leuer return a couple of games prior to the Big Ten tournament, this Badger squad could make a deep run. I see UW finishing the second half of league play with a 7-2 record.

Therefore, their 13-5 mark in conference play would be good enough for the No. 2 seed (or at worst No. 3) in the tournament. From there, I like the Badgers chances to win the league tourney.

Am I expecting this to happen? Absolutely not. Would I be surprised if it did? Absolutely not.

And it's that very reason that should make the next one month-plus so much fun to watch.

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