Tuesday evening’s victory against Penn State was much bigger than just a convincing home win against an underperforming Big Ten team. It was the confidence-building revenge game that the Wisconsin Badgers (8-4 Big Ten, 14-5 overall) needed as they approach the most daunting part of their schedule.
The last week for the Badgers has been quite a wild ride. A two-game road trip began in College Park, Md. as the Badgers looked to take down one of just two teams to beat them at the Kohl Center: the Maryland Terrapins. Just four days before, the Ohio State Buckeyes became the second team to beat the Badgers in Madison, so the team was looking to avenge their other home loss as well.
The game started firmly in the Badgers’ hands as they amassed an 18-point lead going into halftime. However, as we’ve seen a few times from the Badgers this season, they let the Terrapins come alive in the second half. After shooting 46 percent from both the field and from three-point range in the first half, they shot 29 percent from the field and 30 percent from deep in the second. The shooting slump allowed Maryland to cut the lead down to three points with about eleven minutes left. The Terrapins shot 48 percent from the field in the second half and went 7-16 from deep.
This time, however, the Badgers bent but didn’t break. Yes, they went over seven minutes without a field goal to end the game. And yes, they were once again out-scored in the paint by Maryland, which doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. Though, in a conference as cannibalistic as the Big Ten, a win is a win is a win. The Badgers found their vengeance by a score of 61-55.
The Badgers picked up where they left off in the final minutes of the Maryland game on the second leg of their road trip in University Park, Pa. Not with winning play, but with sloppy basketball and poor defense. The big storyline heading into this game was the turnover battle; Wisconsin turns the ball over at an incredibly low rate, but the Nittany Lions are known to force turnovers and turn those chances into fastbreak points.
Jim Ferry’s team did exactly that. Penn State scored 21 points on 12 Badger turnovers while the Badgers tried and failed to get into a rhythm from deep. The Badgers ended the game shooting 7-28 from three-point range and forced just six turnovers. The Nittany Lions took the game by a score of 81-71, which is the highest number of points allowed by Greg Gard’s squad so far this season.
But, Wisconsin got a chance to return to Madison with revenge on the table once again, as the Nittany Lions visited the Kohl Center in the second game of the back to back. Even though the Badgers played to many of Penn State’s strengths by committing 15 turnovers, they were able to slow the pace of the game down in the second half and dominate. Notably, 11 of the 15 Badger turnovers came in the first half.
Their ability to take care of the ball and return to the stifling defense that we’ve come to expect from Gard’s Badgers (Penn State shot 34 percent from the field and 23 percent from deep in the second half) gave them a dominant 72-56 victory.
The slog begins
For the sake of the team’s success, one would hope that the Badgers are feeling good and confident after Tuesday’s victory. They have a four-day rest until their next game that kicks off a brutal end to the season.
The Badgers have faced their fair share of ranked opponents throughout the season, but they also had some lower-tier competition peppered between the truly grueling contests. That won’t be the case for the rest of the season.
Wisconsin will take on AP-ranked Big Ten opponents in six of their final eight regular season games this year, starting with a game in Champaign against No. 12 Illinois on Saturday afternoon. Five of the Badgers’ last eight games will be on the road as well. They will play the Illini again in Madison, travel to take on No. 24 Purdue, and play a home-and-home series against No. 8 Iowa.
The Badgers are scheduled to take on the No. 4 Michigan Wolverines as well, but University of Michigan athletics are on pause until at least Feb. 11 due to COVID-19 variants on campus. The game, which would be in Madison, is scheduled for Feb. 14. While no official decision has been made regarding the status of the game, it’s generally considered to be in limbo.
The Badgers will also face unranked Nebraska and Northwestern in this final stretch. While these shouldn’t be considered challenges on paper, teams like Maryland and Penn State have proven to the Badgers that they can’t afford to take any Big Ten opponents lightly.
Skidding in the snow
This rough patch of scheduling comes as the Badgers have been slipping down the AP Poll. In just two weeks they’ve fallen from No. 10 to No. 19 due to losses to Ohio State and Penn State.
These losses have also dropped the Badgers to fifth place in the Big Ten behind Michigan, Illinois, Iowa and Ohio State. Both Illinois and Ohio State are currently on three-game win streaks.
Iowa and Ohio State are scheduled to play each other on Thursday night, and no matter the result, the Badgers will jump up to fourth place. The Badgers currently have the same conference record as Ohio State, but the Buckeyes hold the tiebreaker thanks to their victory in Madison; a loss to Iowa would put them at 8-5 with the Badgers at 8-4. Iowa, on the other hand, would fall to 7-4 with a loss to Ohio State. Since their winning percentage would be lower than the Badgers, the Hawkeyes would fall to No. 5 in the conference with a loss.
The Badgers and Badger fans alike should be looking forward to escaping the cannibalistic Big Ten conference for the NCAA Tournament in Indianapolis. If this was Shawshank Redemption, the Badgers are about to crawl through the sewers of the Big Ten until the conference tournament ends for them; after that, they’ll finally be free from the competition of the best conference in college basketball this season… right?
ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, CBS’s Jerry Palm and NCAA.com’s Andy Katz all have predicted brackets that are, of course, ever-evolving with each game played. Prior to their victory at home against Penn State, the Badgers had been graded as both a four and a five seed; these brackets haven’t been updated since the victory, but it’s unlikely that a win over a low-level team like Penn State would propel the Badgers into a better position. It will take wins against ranked opponents to do that.
Right now, Lunardi and ESPN have the Badgers ranked the highest of the three as a 4-seed. Palm and Katz each have the Badgers as a 5-seed in the tournament; CBS projects them to play Toledo in round one, while Katz’s bracket would have them see Wright State.
The last time there was an NCAA Tournament, the Badgers were a 5-seed as well. They were notably blown out by Kenny Wooten and the 12-seed Oregon Ducks in the Round of 64.