Coming back from winter recess is typically strange when following the Wisconsin men's basketball team. Before the break, Wisconsin has usually only played games against one or two worthy foes, which means many questions about how good the team is in a given year remain unanswered. Then, many students leave Madison for a month, and by the time they return, the Badgers have then played in five or six Big Ten games, and fans now have a pretty good idea of how the team can play that season. Ironically, the period when most students are out of town is one of the most important stretches of Wisconsin's schedule.
This year, however, was a little different. Normally, with the exception of its annual matchup with Marquette, Wisconsin faces perhaps only one other challenging opponent. But this year Wisconsin had the chance to play three tough teams in the Maui Invitational and then of course had the matchup with Duke in early December.
Because it played against so much higher-level competition in November and December, Wisconsin achieved an identity early this season: a team that could count on senior guard Trevon Hughes and junior forward Jon Leuer to generate offense, use its bench to its advantage and compete with perhaps any team in the nation.
Those around Wisconsin basketball had a pretty good idea Wisconsin would be successful heading into the early portion of its Big Ten schedule, and that is exactly what happened.
Wisconsin's 4-2 record represents a solid start to the Big Ten season. The Badgers continued their tradition of strong play and picked up two road victories against Penn State and Northwestern, which is seemingly becoming a very difficult place to play (just ask Purdue).
Wisconsin lucked out by facing the Buckeyes at home on New Year's Eve without standout Evan Turner and beat then-No. 4 Purdue at home for a strong win to mark on its resume. The two losses both came on the road and against upper-level Big Ten teams in Michigan State and Ohio State, two defeats UW can ultimately live with.
By far the largest negative of Wisconsin's season thus far is the injury to Leuer. The Badgers had to be excited about the improvement Leuer displayed early on, showing great strides in his low- and high-post offensive game and also developing into a physical low-post player on both sides of the ball, especially on rebounding. These advances made by Leuer are reflected on the stat sheet, as Leuer was scoring 15.4 points per game and grabbing a team-high 6.2 rebounds before he went down with his wrist injury.
His points-per-game average in 2009-'10 nearly doubles his average the season before, and the rebounding numbers also represent improvement. Leuer would also typically match up against opponents' greatest low-post scoring threats, thus replacing his output on offense and defense will be challenging.
Much of the load falls on junior forward Keaton Nankivil. Nankivil's jump shot is a weapon for this team, but Nankivil cannot perform physically down low like Leuer could. Freshman Ryan Evans should see an increase in playing time with Leuer's absence. Evans has shown an ability to get physical around the glass this season, but his offensive ability, at least at this point in Evans' career, is nowhere near Leuer's.
Other candidates to fill in for Leuer include freshman forward Jared Berggren, who shows glimpses of capability on offense but is still inexperienced, and freshman forward Mike Bruesewitz, who is not afraid to get phsyical on either side of the ball but a long way from becoming a scoring threat for the Badgers.
On a more positive note, sophomore guard Jordan Taylor is now playing with a high level of confidence after netting a career-high 23 points in Wisconsin's big victory over Purdue, proving he can now operate as a primary scoring option for Wisconsin. Taylor came up big against the Boilermakers with Leuer hampered by the wrist injury.
Another scoring option from the outside is senior guard Jason Bohannon. Since arriving in Madison with the reputation of a sharpshooter from the perimeter, Bohannon has transformed into more of a streaky scorer than a reliable option. But Bohannon's 3-point numbers are up from last season. After shooting 36.6 percent last season, Bohannon is now at 39.8 percent from long distance.
Moving forward, Leuer will be desperately missed by the Badgers, but Wisconsin should still be confident in the weapons they have.
At home, Wisconsin is capable of beating anyone remaining on their schedule, even No. 6 Michigan State. But winning a Big Ten championship may now be unachievable without Leuer.
Still, Leuer's injury will not destroy Wisconsin's season, as the Badgers should still finish strong with a relatively high NCAA Tournament seed and hopefully welcome Leuer's return by tournament time.