It’s been a tale of two halves for the Badgers men’s basketball program this season as we’ve seen close game results become a major detriment. In the first half of the season, Bucky had 10 games finish within 5 points. Wisconsin won 7 of those, including over opponents like Marquette, Dayton and Maryland. Had the final stretch been refereed correctly against Kansas, Wisconsin could add an eighth win to the total. Point is, this team was dominant in close games.
Things have changed dramatically since then. Since a 3 point win over Penn State in January, this team has played in 8 games that ended within 5 points at the end of regulation. Of those 8 games, the Badgers have only won 3 of them. In the losses, Wisconsin was in firm control or had a great opportunity to win it or at least push the game to overtime. What changed? How did the team go from winning 70% of their close games to well under 50%? That change could very well cost them a chance at the NCAA tournament.
Lack of Shot Creators
I was higher on this years team than most, but we have to remember this team was projected to finish towards the bottom of the conference. Even though the Badgers are currently 11th in the B1G standings, they are a few shots away from being 7th. Being 11-8 in conference looks a heck of a lot better then 8-11. Why has the team seen such a shift in close game results though?
It has been extremely common over the last couple of years to see the Wisconsin offense disappear for long stretches. That can be attributed to lacking a true scoring threat. That roster downfall has reared its ugly head in close games as well. This program has rarely had dynamic athletes, so they’ve had to rely on creating offense as a team. Even though some of the best teams in program history had players that could create on their own, they were most effective when moving the ball.
That has lacked in crunch time in the second half of the season. With the game on the line and a chance to either win the game, or put it away, Chucky has called his own number. When that has happened, the results have been ugly. He’s had a couple of chances to come up big and none have worked out. I don’t write this to pass blame on to him, but to shed light on to the real issues. As solid as Hepburn has been at times this season, he isn’t a closer. He isn’t a dynamic enough athlete to consistently create good looks. This isn’t just a Chucky problem, it’s a problem with the entire roster.
There isn’t a single player on the team with the ability to consistently create their own looks. This team needs to run set plays to work players open or get matchups they like. For some reason, this hasn’t happened with the game on the line. Whether that be a Gard decision, or Hepburn choosing to do his own thing, we may never know. With how successful many set plays have been for Wisconsin this season, I lean towards on court decision making.
Lack of Defensive Stops
For as long as I can remember, the Badgers basketball program has had good or great defenses. They played well together, understood the fundamentals to avoid fouling, and selflessly drew charges at key moments. We haven’t seen that in crunch time this year. Overall, allowing 64 points a game isn’t bad, but not being able to get the stops when it matters makes the rest of the game obsolete.
Part of that can be attributed to rebounding struggles for the Badgers. They are one of the worst rebounding teams in the country. Rebound struggles haven’t directly caused a loss, but they’ve caused games to be close and caused players to play differently on defense so they can be in position to rebound.
When you’re a good rebounding team, you can play defense the way you’re supposed to knowing you have 4 other teammates that will do what’s needed to get the board. When that isn’t the case, things become much more difficult. The defensive issues showed more in the blowout losses than close losses, but early in the season Wisconsin was able to get the big stop. That wasn’t the case during the home stretch. The game winning Hepburn steals were great, but unfortunately couldn’t happen every game.
What Needs to Change for 2023-2024
Greg Gard has recently made mention of needing to add guard depth for next season. With the recruiting class already set, that leaves the transfer portal as the only option to make immediate improvements. With so many players willing to make a switch in todays age of college sports, filling that need shouldn’t be an issue. As solid of a player as Chucky is, finding a more dynamic point guard would help. Putting Hepburn in more catch and shoot situations instead of facilitating could do wonders for the offense.
If Wahl decides to come back, him getting back to his early season self could be huge as well. His inability to find his form after the ankle injury seemed to throw the teams rhythm off. For someone who has been so good at finishing around the rim his entire career, it’s odd to see it completely disappear for a long stretch. Bringing back your sole impact senior for one more year could help this teams ceiling next season.
Finally, this team needs another big. Carter Gilmore filled in admirably but at 6’7″, he isn’t an answer when facing some of the bigs the conference has to offer. The incoming recruiting class has some exciting talent but a grad transfer to bridge that game would be huge. More development from Ilver and Hodges would help as well but after a down 2022-2023 season, this program will want quicker results next season.
It’ll be interesting to see what happens with the roster during the offseason. Much like the football program, there needs to be more competition. A good recruiting class helps that but adding some scoring punch and size via the transfer portal will be crucial. Even though this season has been a disappointment, this team is a few made buckets away from the perception being totally different.
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