The vast majority of fans expected the Badgers men’s basketball team to miss the NCAA tournament. That doesn’t mean selection Sunday was any less painful. Not hearing the Badgers name called for a spot in the big dance is a weird feeling, and extremely unfamiliar. If you tuned in a couple hours later, you would have heard that name called, for the NIT tournament.
It’s not uncommon for teams that rarely miss the NCAA tournament to decline their bids to the NIT. We saw it happen with the University of North Carolina this year. I saw plenty of fans saying the NIT tournament was beneath the Wisconsin program. As much as I’d prefer Bucky to be in the field of 68, they have another opportunity for growth. If the Badgers focus on these 3 things in the tournament, we should see a much better product next season.
1. Evolution of Offensive Games
From game 1 to the loss to Ohio State in the B1G tournament, the Wisconsin offense looked relatively similar. The systems in place weren’t bad, but the execution and individual development just wasn’t there. That’s somewhat understandable as growing an offensive game while battling through a B1G schedule is a tough task. With that said, Connor Essegian showed us it was possible.
This roster for the most part is young, with Tyler Wahl being the only senior. Even though there are some juniors, there is still major growth potential in their games. The NIT tournament can be used to try things that were potentially out of the players comfort zones. I don’t want these players to try things they aren’t capable of, but put more emphasis on parts of their games that are next to evolve.
For a player like Essegian, continue to find ways to create off the dribble and driving the lane. For Max Klesmit, have the confidence to be the offensive piece he’s capable of being. Don’t stop shooting after a couple of misses. I’d love to see Kamari McGee get more run and focus on being a better creator. Even though he is a capable shooter, he is quick enough to get into the paint and create open looks.
We also can’t forget about Chucky Hepburn. After an impressive freshman season, he appeared to take a step backwards this season. Part of that may have been due to expectations being too high. Even though he called his number in crunch time consistently, it still never felt like he was the guy. He plays a cerebral game and adding touch and finishing ability to his game would elevate him to another level.
2. Playing Time for the Inexperienced
It’ll be tough for Greg Gard to balance giving the young guys experience while still trying to win, but I think it’s important. One of the biggest issues of the season has been lack of depth. As I stated earlier, this is a young team, and the NIT is a great chance to give the young players some run.
We already know what Essegian brings to the table, but what about someone like Markus Ilver? I may be higher on him than most but at 6’8″, he has the size to make an impact in the B1G and has shown to be a willing shooter. His defense absolutely needs work, but the few times we did see him this season, he showed flashes on offense. He has a smooth stroke and has the length to get shots over people inside the arc.
Another player I’d like to see get some time on the floor is Chris Hodges. He’s a redshirt freshman that opted out of his senior year in high school during the pandemic. At 6’9″, he has the size to play in the physical conference that the B1G is. We saw him a few times early in the season and he was raw, which is to be expected. Much like Ilver, defense is going to be key for Chris. If he can figure out how to get on the floor with his defense, his offense should follow.
Even though I expect and hope Gard to add depth through the transfer portal this off-season, getting the inexperienced guys game reps is huge. The Wisconsin basketball program has consistently developed players to be college level contributors, playing in the NIT is a great way to keep the development going.
3. Close Out Tight Games
A huge key for the Badgers last season and the first part of this season was finishing close games. As soon as they stopped doing that, they tumbled down the B1G standings. The program as a whole has been successful for so long due to the focus on the little things. Having those small things becoming second nature means they happen more easily in crunch time.
This team will be better next year, whether any major transfers come in or not. With that said, they need to remember what it feels like to squeeze out their opponent in a close game. Whether that be with good late game execution on offense, smothering defense or made free throws. All 3 of those things failed the Badgers at times over the course of this season. They are also things the team has full control of.
As much as I’d love to see this team playing on Thursday or Friday, there is growth potential starting tonight. These players and the program as a whole need to get their identity back. A deep run in the tournament would be fun, but focusing the game plan around the future would be more beneficial.
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