The University of Wisconsin’s highly underrated basketball program suffered a tough loss in the Final Four last year, and are in a prime position to reach that same point in 2015. The Badgers entered this season with the slate wiped clean, and the results have the team playing with chips on their collective shoulders and as a No. 1 seed in the tourney pool this year.
But even with a great regular season and Big Ten Conference tournament championship in the books, Wisconsin is hardly guaranteed a return to the Final Four, let alone the championship game. After all, this is the NCAA Tournament and if George Mason taught us anything in 2006, it’s that anything can happen.
Still, this team is highly talented and has all the necessary tools to make a big run. Let’s analyze them top to bottom and see just how far they can go!
The Big Ten is, hands down, the deepest and toughest conference in all of college basketball. The best teams that play in it have size, take smart shots, and play the game with strong focus. Apart from Wisconsin, it is home to top programs like Maryland, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio State and Michigan State, among others. Though not all of the teams I just mentioned had lights-out seasons this year, the fact that all but Michigan earned a tournament berth this year–regardless of fairly mediocre records–shows just how strong the Big Ten is.
And this year, Wisconsin was the Big Ten’s top dog. The Badgers went 31-3 which is the best overall finish since head coach Bo Ryan (who we’ll discuss later) took over back in 2001. Of those three losses, two were tough in-conference defeats to Maryland and Rutgers. Considering how Rutgers finished dead last in the Big Ten, that one can just be called a fluke, especially since star player Frank Kaminsky missed the game with a concussion.
The other loss was early in the season to the Duke Blue Devils, a fellow tournament No. 1 that visited Madison back on December 3 and shot 65 percent from the field en route to an 80-70 victory, while Wisconsin was held to a shooting percentage of 41.
But that didn’t discourage the Badgers, nor slow them down. The team shook the loss off quickly and practically ran the table for the rest of the season. Heading into the tournament, their average margin of victory is 18 points per game. Long story short, if this team gets a lead, don’t expect them to give it up.
That type of attack will only help Wisconsin in the tournament and will make a return to the Final Four not just a near-certainty, but a borderline guarantee.
Head Coach Spotlight: Bo Ryan
At age 67, Bo Ryan has spent more than half his life in the state of Wisconsin. Apart from years spent growing up and eventually teaching in his home state of Pennsylvania, the man has been in the Badger state since 1976, first as an assistant for Wisconsin before taking his first head coaching job in 1984 at the Division III University of Wisconsin in Platteville.
Ryan would spend 15 years there, accumulating an eye-popping record of 353-76, plus four D-III championships. On top of that, his overall record of 266-26 in the 1990s made his Pioneers the winningest NCAA team of the decade.
He would then move onto the Division I ranks in 1999, accepting the head coaching job at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. In two years in the Horizon League, he led the Panthers to an overall record of 30-27, with no tournament berths whatsoever.
That said, not much was expected of him when the Badgers hired him in 2001. Just two years earlier, the team had made the Final Four under the watch of Dick Bennett, who retired three games into the following season and was replaced by assistant Brad Soderberg, who led the team to a first round exit in that year’s tournament.
Over a decade later, it’s safe to say that hiring Ryan was the best decision the school’s athletic department could have made. In each season that he has been head coach, the Badgers have not only made the NCAA tournament, but have failed to advance past the round of 64 only twice in thirteen seasons. On top of that, Ryan’s Badgers have appeared in five Sweet Sixteens, two Elite Eights and one Final Four.
This year’s overall record of 31-3 was a career best for him at the school, and the best in school history since 1941. That year, the Badgers were 20-3 and won a national championship under head coach Bud Foster, with a national tournament field of just eight teams!
A lot of Ryan’s success comes from the use of his “swing” offense, which allows for everyone on the court to succeed and focuses on lots on passing and high-percentage shot taking, plus drawing a lot of fouls so that points may be accumulated via free throws. Given how Wisconsin finished 21st in the nation in field goal percentage this year (.480)–their best positioning in that statistic since Ryan took over–this year’s team definitely has what it takes to advance far with one simple approach: playing smart basketball for a coach who clearly trusts his players.
Team Leader: Frank Kaminsky
Hear the name Frank Kaminsky, and the first thing that comes to mind isn’t exactly an elite basketball player. In reality, the name sounds more like that of someone who would try and sell you a used car, or maybe some life insurance. But the real Frank Kaminsky is the 7’0″, 234 pound senior leader of this Badgers team, and I don’t think anybody wants a championship this year more than he does.
In his senior season, Kaminsky averaged a career best 18.2 points and eight rebounds per contest, plus 1.6 blocks. He shot 55 percent from the floor and 39.5 percent from long range, the best part being that only 2.6 of his 12.2 field goal attempts per game were three-point attempts. If that isn’t a ringing endorsement of how well Ryan’s swing offense works, then I don’t know what is.
Even more important is how Kaminsky became the team’s leader. He went from riding the pine his freshman year to being a role player off the bench as a sophomore to being a starter the last two years, and he has shown improvement in every major category.
Kaminsky also scored in double figures in all but one game this season, demanding the ball nonstop and wanting to put the team on his back while also being incredibly unselfish in the pursuit of victory.
Regardless of that, however, Kaminsky rallied his teammates behind him is the end-all be-all of Wisconsin’s tournament life this year. Whether he is leading them in the stats department or just taking a back seat to a teammate with a hot hand, he has proven he will do whatever it takes to win. Given how much he has grown as a player since his freshman year, this shouldn’t be an issue.
X-Factor: Traevon Jackson
Guard play is always key in the big dance, and that means the last thing the Badgers can do is rely on Kaminsky and junior forward Sam Dekker (13 PPG, 5.5 RPG). Fortunately, after missing the past two months with a broken foot, senior guard Traevon Jackson has been cleared to play. If he can step back on the court and return to form, then Wisconsin will be at a great advantage.
Jackson only averaged 9.4 points this season and doesn’t have much size at 6’2″, 208 pounds, but the numbers don’t do him justice. He is a left-handed slashing guard who doesn’t rely heavily on his jump shot, but can also hold his own from long range in spite of not being an elite shooter. In the team’s loss against Duke this season, Jackson led all scorers with 25 points and shot 7 of 12 from the field, plus a perfect eight for eight from the line.
Though his numbers don’t suggest those of a guard that can put the team on his back when necessary, Jackson is more than capable of doing more than what is expected of him if the situation calls for it. Given how many talented guards there are in the tourney this year, and assuming Jackson does suit up and play significant minutes, look for himself, Dekker and Kaminsky to form a three-headed monster that opposing teams will have a hard time slaying.
I’m not going to go so far as to say that this year’s Wisconsin Badgers will definitely make it to the championship game, but I will say that it’s going to be hard to keep them out of it while filling out your bracket, and keep in mind that they would likely have to beat Kentucky to get that far. This team plays an incredibly smart game and doesn’t take bad shots, so trying to keep up with them mentally as well as physically is going to be a doozy of a task for any opposing team.
Frank Kaminksy is nearly unstoppable when he’s playing at his best. Sam Dekker is a physical force despite not looking intimidating in the least. Traevon Jackson plays with the tenacity of someone much bigger than he actually is, and Bo Ryan is simply one of the most underrated coaches in college hoops. This team is special and despite its No. 1 seeding, they sometimes do not receive the credit they deserve.
That said, when you sit down to watch the tournament this year, make one of your priority games one that features the Badgers!
*Section Photo credit to Andy Lyons, Getty Images; Featured Photo (above) credit to Mary Langenfield, USA Today Sports.