It is safe to say that this season’s Wisconsin Badgers basketball season has been a rollercoaster ride. Nothing has been comfortable. After being projected to finish in the bottom half of the Big Ten, Wisconsin started off the season 11-2. With impressive wins over USC, Marquette, Maryland and Iowa, Wisconsin looked on its way to the tournament by mid-January.
Their only losses came to third-ranked Kansas in the Bahamas and a feisty Wake Forest team. They even rose to No. 14 in the AP Poll. It looked as though the Badgers were once again defying pre-season odds.
Then came the slide. Between Jan. 7 and 28, Wisconsin lost six out of seven games. After losing Tyler Wahl to an ankle injury on Jan. 3, Wisconsin’s offense struggled mightily through the remainder of January, culminating with back to back games in which the Badgers failed to reach 60 points. In fact, at Indiana, Wisconsin scored only 45 points, the low point offensively during the January skid. Simply put, things were not pretty.
A gritty win at Ohio State on Feb. 2 offered some hope for Badgers fans, but Wisconsin responded by losing yet another frustratingly low scoring game, this time against Northwestern at home.
On Feb. 8, Wisconsin played their best offensive game in over a month, scoring 69 points in regulation and overtime at Penn State, and winning in the process. With lowly Nebraska looming on the schedule, a run to propel the Badgers into the NCAA Tournament seemed very feasible.
With Wisconsin already on the bubble, the worst thing that could happen was to lose against a team at the bottom of the conference. Except, that’s exactly what the Badgers did, blowing a 17-point second half lead to the team that sits 12th out of 14 teams in the Big Ten.
So here we are with less than a month until Selection Sunday. Wisconsin sits with a 7-8 conference record (15-10 overall) and has played mostly uninspiring basketball. But after a potentially season-changing victory over Michigan last Tuesday night, Wisconsin still has a chance to sneak their way into the NCAA Tournament.
They have opportunities, as No. 3 Purdue and Iowa, who sit first and fourth in the Big Ten standings, respectively, come to town. A run in the Big Ten Tournament also opens a window for postseason play.
But what needs to happen for Wisconsin to find themselves on the bracket in March? What needs to happen for Wisconsin to finally play with some consistency?
Who can the Badgers rely on?
Much of it starts with 6-foot-9-inch forward Tyler Wahl. The senior leader of the team hasn’t looked the same since he suffered an ankle injury in early January. A lot of the Badgers' troubles can be attributed to the absence of Wahl, and then the shell of himself we’ve seen since his return.
Before his injury, Wahl averaged 14.1 points per game, and Wisconsin was 10-2. Since returning from his injury, Wahl has averaged only 9 points per game, and since his injury, the team is 4-8. Those stats alone indicate how important Wahl is to Wisconsin's success.
For Wahl to start playing better, it starts with his aggression. Everyone knows Wahl’s threat as a scorer, but since his return from his injury, he’s played much more meagerly.
Wahl is used to getting most of his points in the paint, where physicality is common, especially in the Big Ten. However, with a hampered ankle, Wahl has shied away from contact. He has tried too hard to wiggle away from defenders, falling away from the rim instead of attacking. Wahl’s struggles have been reflected in his shooting percentage. While playing a career high 31 minutes per game, Wahl is shooting a career low 40.3%.
The continued emergence of freshman guard Connor Essegian is also essential in the Badgers tournament hopes. The 6-foot-4-inch Essegian is two games removed from the best outing of his career, scoring a career-high 23 points in a win over Michigan.
The freshman is averaging 11.3 points per game and is shooting the three-ball at an impressive 42%. His scoring has only increased since filling a starting role on Jan. 17, scoring 14.2 points per game since. Essegian has undoubtedly been a bright spot in the otherwise barren Wisconsin offense, and he seems to be hitting his stride at just the right time. As March approaches, Wisconsin needs Essegian to keep shooting the three consistently.
For the Badgers to go on a late-season run, Wisconsin needs to continue to play well defensively. With a struggling offense becoming a common trend this season, Wisconsin’s defense has kept them in games all season long.
Tuesday night’s win over Michigan was no different, but much of the defensive prowess came from an unlikely source — senior forward Carter Gilmore. Michigan center Tyler Dickinson brought his fair share of talk into Tuesday night’s contest, but he was held in check offensively, mainly by Gilmore. In the 16 minutes Gilmore was on the floor, Dickinson only scored one field goal. Even more impressive, the Badgers were plus-14.
Two of the teams Wisconsin need to beat, Purdue and Michigan, are both led by big men. Containing Purdue’s dominant 7-foot-4-inch center Zach Edey and Michigan’s leading scorer and rebounder Dickinson, again, are musts. On Tuesday, Gilmore set the tone defensively. The Badgers will surely need more of that.
So after Wisconsin’s close loss to Rutgers, do the Badgers need to win out in order to find themselves on the floor in March? Probably.
Given how deep the Big Ten is, Wisconsin could have likely afforded a loss to either Rutgers, Iowa, Michigan or Purdue. However, after falling to Rutgers at home on Saturday, Wisconsin is clinging onto their tournament chances.
Coming into Saturday, beating Purdue would have given Wisconsin a cushion, but a close loss wouldn’t hurt too much, as long as they take care of business in other games.
However Wisconsin used its cushion already. Now, they have no other choice but to win.
Wins against Iowa and at Michigan would also go a long way. If they lose at Minnesota, their season is surely over. Wisconsin cannot afford a loss to the bottom-feeder of the conference.
The days of playing hypothetical games are over. The Badgers must run the table of their regular season schedule. And while they’re at it, they should consider making a run in the Big Ten tournament.
This team has shown flashes. They were even ranked No. 14 in the nation at one point. If they get Tyler Wahl on track, let Connor Essegian cook and keep playing solid defense, anything can happen.
The Badgers are playing with house money. With most of the college hoops world counting them out, maybe we’ll see them play with more freedom. The chances are slim, but a run to the tournament is still possible.