Badgers at the top of RPI charts, but still striving

Even after the best start in school history, players recognize there still is plenty more to learn. (From left to right: Duje Dukan, Josh Gasser, Ben Brust, Sam Dekker, Frank Kaminsky and Traevon Jackson)

Andy Manis/Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. — In just about any replication of the Ratings Percentage Index, you will find Wisconsin’s basketball program at or near the top of the charts. RealtimeRPI.com: No. 1. Teamrankings.com: No. 1. RPIForecast.com: No. 1. ESPN.com: No. 1. Statsheet.com: No. 2.

You can take the analytics of it all — strength of schedule, victories against top-25 teams, record the last 12 games, adjusted scoring margin — and determine pretty easily the Badgers would garner a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament if the season ended today. Or you can simply watch this team play — with its crisp passing, tremendous shooting ability, defensive toughness and togetherness — and determine the same thing.

No Wisconsin team had ever started a season 16-0 before this bunch. And no Badgers team under coach Bo Ryan has ever scored at this clip.

So, does this team have any room to improve? The answer, if you’ve ever listened to Ryan speak, is yes.

Photos of the Week: 12/29/13-1/5/14

The most glaring issue to emerge during Big Ten play has been the team’s inability to keep opponents off the offensive glass. Iowa recorded 16 offensive rebounds on Sunday and out-rebounded Wisconsin 42-35. Illinois registered an astounding 25 offensive rebounds on Wednesday and out-rebounded the Badgers 48-35. Before those two games, Wisconsin hadn’t surrendered more than 15 offensive rebounds in the first 14 games.

Yes, Illinois took 79 shots — the most against the Badgers this season — but the high rate of offensive rebounds is still alarming. Before the game, Illinois was averaging 12.2 offensive rebounds per outing.

"That’s a point of emphasis coach made after the game," Badgers forward Sam Dekker said Wednesday night. "He wasn’t too happy with the way we rebounded on the defensive end. We should expect some rebounding drills coming up here in these next few days just because how they out-physicaled us on the offensive glass. That’s something we have to take pride in and really check guys out. It’s kind of a staple of Wisconsin basketball to be the more physical team and win those battles in the paint. When we don’t win those, it’s embarrassing for us. We take a lot of pride in that so we don’t want to feel that way. So it’s just a place that we have to get better at."

Added freshman forward Nigel Hayes: "It’s kind of a positive thing knowing we gave up 25 offensive boards but we still won the way we did. That just goes to show if we clean that up, take half of that or even more than that, we can probably win by even more and play a better game. We’re going to take it as a challenge and we need to improve and become better rebounding offensively and defensively."

Imported Bru Archive

There are other areas that have been problematic, too, although not many. Wisconsin also ranks 11th out of 12 in the Big Ten in offensive rebounds per game (9.4), ahead of only Northwestern, and ninth in offensive rebound percentage. And Dekker, one of the team’s best shooters, is hitting just 59.7 percent of his free throws and has the second-most attempts on the team. Against Illinois, he made 5 of 9 tries.

"He needs to work on his free throws," Ryan said. "He’s got good range. He’s got a good handle. And he’s trying to get stronger. He’s trying to get more consistent. And he doesn’t feel like he knows everything. That’s what’s great about all these guys that we have. They’re soaking things up."

Ryan was asked if this year’s team was the best he’d ever coached. Of course, Ryan has coached some awfully talented teams in his day and has never been known to single out a specific bunch. He won three Division III national championships at UW-Platteville, and two of those teams finished undefeated.

"In 2007-08, people asked me that a million times," Ryan said of a team that won the Big Ten and finished 31-5. "And try to find once where I said it was. You won’t. And that team wasn’t bad. But really, if you get caught up in thinking, ‘Well this is better than that.’  . . . These young men go through this one time. One period of four or five years. My job is to make sure they get the most out of their experience.

"If these guys want to say when they’re done that this was the best team, they can say whatever they want. But I don’t go there."

The answer to the question will be determined over the next three months. But for now, players recognize there still is plenty more to learn — even after the best start in school history.

"We’re not content," Badgers point guard Traevon Jackson said. "We’ve just got to keep getting better. We’re excited for what’s next. We can get so much better. I still think we haven’t played a full game yet to our maximum potential. That’s what we’ve got to go and practice and look at the film. Go out against Indiana and try to do that."

Follow Jesse Temple on Twitter