It happens every year. When assessing the Big Ten pre-season rankings, all one has to go on is the quality of the returning players, the new recruits, and the schedule; which means “on paper”. Fortunately, the game isn’t played on paper, but on the court, and that is where Wisconsin separates itself. Rarely does Bo Ryan have the elite basketball players that some of the more high-profile teams possess, and therefore, the Badgers are infrequently ranked near the top of the conference in the pre-season rankings. But, as we chronically see every year, Wisconsin is always near or atop the conference standings.
The question is how. How do the Badgers annually compete, despite a less-talented roster? It starts with the type of players that Wisconsin recruits. Rather than spending all of their energies trying to get the five-star athletes, the Badgers recruit players that will fit their system. Granted, there have been some marquee players come through Madison, but on the whole (and “on paper”), the athletic talent doesn’t compare to some of the other high-profile teams.
What is more important is, how do the Badgers get it done on the court? It really revolves around three main principles; valuing possessions, control tempo, and strong defense. Wisconsin takes care of the basketball as well as any team in the country, evidenced by conference best turnover margin (+3.3) and second-best assist-to-turnover ratio (1.5). Passes are hard, crisp, and conservative, and the players run the offense with precision, rarely taking a poor-percentage shot. The team uses most of the shot clock, forcing their opponents to play close to 35 seconds of defense on every possession. This allows Wisconsin to control tempo, and thus shorten the game and minimize the athleticism of the opponent.
Finally, it the staple of most every Wisconsin team in the Bo Ryan era; stingy defense. The Badgers led the Big Ten in scoring defense in 2011-12, and they are right back at the top this season, holding opponents to 54.8 ppg. Ryan is a master at taking away what the opponents do best, whatever the skill, and force them into plan B. His players defend the basketball closely, play passing lanes, and aggressively attack screens. The Badgers’ rebounding technique is outstanding, masking the disadvantage they may have in height and leaping ability.
Without a dominant scorer this season, Wisconsin has had to win with balanced scoring. Led by forwards, Jared Berggren (12.0 ppg) and Ryan Evans (10.9 ppg), the Badgers have players who can score inside, while also scoring via the mid-range game. Coincidentally, Berggren and Evans also lead the club in rebounding at 6.4 and 7.8 rpg respectively, and are the two defensive stoppers (Berggren with 35 blocked shots and Evans drawing the opponents best player).
F Sam Dekkar (9.3 ppg) has been one of the better freshmen in the conference, and is the type of player that can be an impact on offense and defense in the future. The frontcourt play has also gotten contributions from F Mike Bruesewitz (7.1 ppg) and C/F Frank Kaminsky.
The guard play was a huge question mark coming into the season, after losing Jordan Taylor to graduation and Josh Gasser to a pre-season knee injury. Freshman George Marshall began the season running the point, but wasn’t quite up to the task (5.8 ppg and less than two assists per game), but Traevon Jackson (5.8 ppg/2.1 apg) stepped-in and has been more of a facilitator/leader than a playmaker. Combo guard Ben Brust ranks third on the team in scoring (10.4 ppg) and rebounding (5.6 rpg), while providing hustling defense.
The marquee matchups for this week continue to intensify, with Wisconsin @ Ohio State on Jan 29, Indiana @ Purdue on Jan 30, and Illinois @ Michigan State on Jan 31, while February is greeted by two stellar weekend games (Michigan @ Indiana and Wisconsin @ Illinois).
Big Ten Power Rankings
1. Michigan 2. Indiana 3. Michigan State 4. Ohio State 5. Wisconsin 6. Minnesota 7. Illinois 8. Purdue 9. Northwestern 10. Iowa 11. Nebraska 12. Penn State
Deric McKamey is a scout and correspondent for NetScouts Basketball and covers the Big Ten.