For a team predicted to finish 10th in the Big Ten, Wisconsin basketball is exceeding expectations. Following their victory over 16th ranked Ohio State, the Badgers now sit 14-2 and 5-1 in conference play. Sitting at 13 in the national standings, Greg Gard has his team firing on all fronts.
With the first half complete, I wanted to look back and review where Wisconsin sits as a team. What has gone well, where do the Badgers need to improve and where I see them finishing this season.
What’s Going Well
Johnny Davis’ Development
Many thought this would be the year sophomore Johnny Davis would break out. After numerous flashes a season ago, Davis has emerged as a Player of the Year candidate. So what has changed from a season ago?
First, a shift in the roster. With how deep the Badgers were a season ago, Davis now can play freely being a leader on this team. It’s not that Davis didn’t appreciate his role, but he now has the ability to be “the guy” compared to last year. Second, his mindset during the summer at the FIBA U19 World Championship completely changed. A season ago, Davis was more likely to settle for jump shots and wasn’t as aggressive getting to the hoop. After building up his confidence last summer, he’s turned into a complete scorer. His finishing ability at the rim has improved and he expanded his range too.
Davis was always a good three-point shooter but has been shooting more from distance this season carrying the same consistency. The La Crosse native thrives as a defender but this year has taken the role of guarding opponents top scorers. It’s not that Davis needed to drastically change his game but when he came back after the summer, a new player emerged.
From averaging just seven points per game a season ago, Davis has turned into one of the nations top scorers. We don’t know what his future holds for Johnny Davis after this year but Badger fans surely appreciate the budding star in Madison.
Wisconsin’s Starting Rotation
Although Wisconsin has an elite scorer in Johnny Davis, it was uncertain where else the production would come. Senior Brad Davison was always reliable and has been once again this season. The Minnesota native currently averages 15.2 points per game, five points better than last season. But where else was Wisconsin going to get points?
Luckily, the Badgers have received a huge boost from junior forward Tyler Wahl. Known as Wisconsin’s “glue guy”, Wahl has proven he can score as well. In his last five games, Wahl is averaging over 16 points per game and shooting 67% from the field. In his last three games, Wahl averages 19 points per game and shooting over 75%.
Looking back at these games, Wisconsin might not be where they are without some of these games from Wahl. It’s not that the Badgers don’t use him, but the forward has provided in ways like strong defense, and rebounding. For you Space Jam fans out there, it’s like Wahl has been drinking the “secret stuff” of late.
Going into the season, coach Gard was also high on two younger players in center Steven Crowl and guard Chucky Hepburn. For Crowl, many wondered how he would stack up against the Big Ten’s giants down low. It hasn’t been perfect but it’s also the sophomore’s first full season. In his last five games, Crowl is averaging 11 points per game, including a 21 point performance against Illinois State.
For Hepburn, it’s been a season so far filled with ups and downs. It hasn’t been perfect but it’s hard to imagine a freshman coming in and making an instant offense. The stats may not be there on offense but his presence on defense makes a difference. Once the freshman guard gets his feet on offense, watch out.
Area’s of Improvement
Although Wisconsin’s prides themselves as a defensive first team, it hasn’t always been the case this year. A big reason is the Badgers struggles primarily in their big men and foul trouble.
Wisconsin brought in graduate transfer Chris Vogt from Cincinnati to pair with young center Steven Crowl. Many thought Crowl would struggle but Vogt could provide a lift going against the Big Ten’s elite front court. So far this season, it’s been mixed performances.
In his last ten games, Vogt has had 2 fouls or less in three of those matchups. Even though Crowl has been a bit better, he’s also had foul trouble too, with five games of 3 or more fouls. At times, Wisconsin has been fortunate to get away with the issue. In most games the Badgers have come out victorious but it hasn’t been pretty. Against Indiana, both Vogt and Crowl picked up fouls early that it left forward Ben Carlson to play extended minutes. The Hoosiers took advantage in part of their large 1st half lead.
I’m not sure if this will ever get better. The good part of late is both have provided meaningful minutes and have avoided awkward offensive situations like what happened against Indiana. However if the struggles do continue, it could lead to Wisconsin dropping more games. With teams like Purdue, Illinois, and Michigan State still remaining. it will be something the Badgers need to correct going forward.
Although we’ve seen production out of the starters, Wisconsin’s bench has been pretty quiet. Consisting of young or new players, it was something the Badgers were unlikely to see much production to begin with. However, that doesn’t mean this isn’t a concern.
Of their 16 games, the Badgers bench has scored 10 or less points in 12 of them. The highest mark of 29 came game one of the season against Saint Francis. The last time Wisconsin saw more than 10 points from the bench came against Nicholls State back on December 15th. In some ways it speaks to where Wisconsin sits with their starters. But what happens if injuries or foul trouble occurs?
Chris Vogt has been the top scorer off the bench with highs of nine points in a few different matchups. Freshman guard Lorne Bowman has shown flashes along with transfer guard Jahcobi Neath. Both however have been out this season either with injuries or out due to illness. Forward Carter Gilmore has been reliable for the Badgers on the defensive end but hasn’t shown much on offense.
Even though it’s concerning, more minutes can only help these players grow, especially when they need it down the stretch.
Remaining Season Prediction
Right now, Wisconsin is currently playing their best basketball collectively as a group. Even though Johnny Davis has become mortal these last two games, players like Brad Davison and Tyler Wahl have carried the load. With just 14 conference games remaining, it now down to a few key things.
First, the Badgers must protect home court. The team can afford to drop games but can’t do so either at home or against lesser Big Ten teams. Of the home games remaining, I think a respectable measure would to be going 5-2. Although no matchup is easy, if you can split it games against Purdue, Michigan St, Michigan, or Rutgers, and win the others, the Badgers will be in a great position.
Second, coming up with wins on the road. It is important for Wisconsin to win the matchups they would be favored and steal one against a top team. The Badgers already have the resume for March. They have seven wins against Ken Pom Quad One opponents, the most in the nation. Any win on the road in the Big Ten is good moving forward. For sake of putting a record out there, 4-3 on the road would be the ideal situation.
Add all of those up and the Badgers would be sitting 14-6 at the end of conference play. Again, this would be the best case scenario for Wisconsin. With matchups against Purdue, Rutgers, Michigan State, Michigan, and Illinois remaining, nothing will be easy moving forward.
However, if there’s one thing the Badgers have proven this year, it’s how gritty and tough they’ve been. If they can continue their strong play, anything is possible for this team. Including the possibility as Big Ten Champion.