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Saturday, June 22, 2024
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Big Ten on the road: How have the Badgers fared?

While conference road games are notoriously tricky in Big Ten basketball, Gard and the Badgers are navigating the gauntlet at a high level.

As the college basketball season trends into February, Big Ten basketball’s highest currency — a road victory — will become even more important. 

The conference has historically challenged even the best of its teams on the road, with a home court advantage leveling the competition between a team with a losing record and a top-15 team in the nation.

This season, even the Big Ten’s top teams have struggled on the road. Purdue rolled into Evanston, Illinois as the No.1 seed in the country before Boo Buie and the Northwestern Wildcats outpaced them offensively and upset the Boilermakers in overtime. Just over a month later, Nebraska dominated Purdue again, blowing them out by 16 in Lincoln. Wisconsin met a similar fate in Happy Valley after starting the season 5-0 in Big Ten play, dropping their matchup by four points to Penn State.

The Badgers still lead the Big Ten, sporting an 8-1 record after edging out Minnesota in a key road win last week and handling the Spartans at home. They’ve fared well on the road this season, even taking down Michigan State the first time around in the Breslin Center early in December.

Much of the struggle for away teams in the Big Ten roots from competition in daunting arenas. Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall (Indiana), Mackey Arena (Purdue) and the State Farm Center (Illinois) were all built in the late 1960s, designed to keep sound in and amplify the pressure on the visitors. The latter two are designed as circular bowls, with sprawling ceilings that keep any noise contained.

One of the surprise trap arenas in the Big Ten last season was the University of Maryland’s Xfinity Center, where the Terrapins went 16-1 overall with five wins against ranked teams. Meanwhile, they disappeared on the road, going 1-9 in Big Ten play before eventually dropping their Round of 32 tournament matchup with Alabama at a neutral site.

Essentially, the location of the game might be more important than the actual team itself. In the second week of January, seven of the top 10 teams dropped their conference matchups on the road, all to unranked teams. 

College basketball culminates each year in March, when teams' abilities to win outside their home arena will be tested. A neutral site is a true assessment of each team, when the comfort of their home court and hostility of an away court is removed. Free throws, often the late decider of many games, won’t be shot with silence or utter chaos but rather with a balance between the two fanbases.

The Badgers are approaching one of their tough stretches in the next few games, with three of four on the road and a home date with second-ranked Purdue. How will they fare, and what can that tell us about their future in March?

Wisconsin last found themselves at this pace in Big Ten play during the 2014-15 season, when they found themselves in the NCAA Championship game against Duke. That season, the Badgers were undefeated in Big Ten games at the Kohl Center and went 16-2 in conference play.

Another consistent feature of both today’s Badgers and their 2014-15 counterparts is the depth of their lineups. Each team boasts three players averaging over 10 points a game as well as sixth and seventh men to complement the starting five. 

Wisconsin has struggled with depth in lineups from past seasons, often leading to an early demise in March. During the 2021-22 season, Johnny Davis averaged 20 points a game but was held to 4-17 shooting in their second round matchup. The Badgers only logged 49 points, eliminated by 11-seeded Iowa State.

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This season, the Badgers are fourth in all of college basketball in offensive efficiency, a statistic tracked by KenPom, which measures how many points a team scores for every 100 possessions. The Badgers have a 121.7 rating, directly competing with top teams such as UConn and Purdue. 

Much of their success has come from the aforementioned depth and rotation deployed by head coach Greg Gard. John Blackwell has been phenomenal off the bench, averaging 8.5 points and 18 minutes a game. Blackwell’s efforts earned him three Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors, adding a freshman presence that has been rare on past Badger teams.

The true test for Wisconsin lies in February, where the Badgers will spend weeks prepping for March Madness and fine-tuning themselves for the tournament. Road matchups will be more important, culminating with a final away date in West Lafayette for their last game of the regular season.

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