The Badgers entered the 2014-’15 season with the highest expectations in program history. A team fresh off a Final Four appearance that lost only one major contributor will create that hype.
And so far, Wisconsin has delivered. Living up to their status as the Big Ten’s best team, the Badgers won the regular season title and brought home the conference tourney championship as well, the first time since 2007-’08 that Wisconsin won either crown, let alone both.
Beginning the year ranked No. 3 in the AP poll, their highest preseason ranking ever, the Badgers rolled through the first half of their nonconference schedule. Wisconsin started 7-0, winning each of those games by an average of 24 points. In the process, the Badgers won the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament over Thanksgiving weekend, which included victories over now-ranked teams Georgetown and Oklahoma.
Then came Duke. One of the most highly anticipated nonconference games in recent memory, the Blue Devils gave Wisconsin its first loss of the year in an 80-70 decision. The Badgers shot just 40.7 percent and were overwhelmed by Duke’s dynamic backcourt.
Wisconsin rebounded to win its five remaining nonconference games, entering Big Ten play ranked No. 4 in the nation with a 13-1 record. But the Badgers’ lack of depth was quickly exposed against Rutgers Jan. 11. With Frank Kaminsky out of the lineup due to a concussion and Traevon Jackson breaking his foot in the second half, Wisconsin was forced to give major minutes to overwhelmed backups. The Badgers’ 67-62 loss is without question the biggest head-scratcher of their season, and possibly in the entire conference.
UW bounced back though, ripping off a 10-game winning streak in which they won all but two of those games by double digits. Kaminsky returned to the lineup and strengthened his hold on the Wooden Award race, averaging 18.9 points and 8.4 rebounds per game during the streak while shooting 57.2 percent. Bronson Koenig seamlessly entered the starting lineup and the offense continued to thrive.
The Badgers’ streak ended when they struggled in a hostile road environment against a very good Maryland team. But it was at least an explainable loss and ultimately a blip on the radar. Wisconsin closed the regular season with three resounding wins to claim their first Big Ten regular season title in seven years.
Then Wisconsin rattled off three victories in three days in the Big Ten tourney to win both conference titles. The Badgers’ second half comeback against Michigan State in the championship was probably the team’s most thrilling stretch of the season, outscoring the Spartans 34-12 over the final 12:46 of the game to erase an 11-point deficit.
While a nationally elite team, the Badgers have shown they are not without shortcomings. They desperately need Jackson to return from his foot injury to help bolster the bench and backcourt depth, while the defense has been inconsistent and has shown trouble keeping up with dynamic opposing guards.
Those are just the cons, with the pros impressive and wide-reaching. Wisconsin features the nation’s best player in Kaminsky, an athletic slasher in Sam Dekker, a do-everything forward in Nigel Hayes, a lockdown defender in Josh Gasser and a floor general point guard in Koenig.
It’s tough to live up to such high preseason expectations. But four months later, the Badgers are the favorites in the West Region and could earn back-to-back Final Four appearances for the first time in school history. And if they can take it two steps farther than last year’s run, consider those expectations surpassed.