MADISON, Wis. — For the past decade, Wisconsin’s basketball program playing in the NCAA Tournament has been as much a certainty as death and taxes — although the Badgers were significantly more fun.
If you were a Wisconsin fan, you could count on your team winning eight or nine of its first 10 nonconference games on its way to another top-four finish in the Big Ten and a 20-win season with coach Bo Ryan manning the sideline. And every March, you could cozy up to the nearest television on Selection Sunday with full confidence the Badgers were headed to the big dance.
Unfortunately, nothing in life lasts forever. Not even Wisconsin’s swing offense and pesky defense crushing the wills of opposing teams on a regular basis.
Despite maintaining the same basic principles of all Ryan-led teams, something is missing at Wisconsin this year. As a result, the Badgers’ streak of 14 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances could be in serious jeopardy, with the team potentially headed for its worst record in the 12-year Ryan era.
The cold, hard facts aren’t pretty.
Through 10 games, Wisconsin stands 6-4 with one quality win against California. Among the other 60 basketball schools in power-six conferences, only 11 teams have as many losses at this stage of the season.
As a means of comparison, the Badgers have been no worse than 8-2 after 10 games in each of the past 10 seasons. The last time Wisconsin’s record was worse at this stage came in Ryan’s first year (2001-02), when the team started 4-6.
So what’s wrong with the Badgers?
Most important, Wisconsin was ill-prepared to handle the loss of starting point guard Josh Gasser, who tore his ACL on Oct. 27 and will miss the entire season. Ryan gushed about Gasser’s improvement during the team’s summer workouts and proclaimed him as the starter only two days before the injury. Gasser, an all-conference defensive player, possessed plenty of playing experience (70 career games with 66 starts) and one of the best assists-to-turnover ratios in program history.
In his place, redshirt freshman George Marshall and sophomore Traevon Jackson were suddenly thrust into playing more minutes. Marshall lost his starting spot to Jackson after six games, and neither player has taken over the team with the type of confidence Gasser exuded.
“Anybody that knows basketball knows what Josh brought to our game,” Ryan said. “So now other guys hopefully will try to learn from the example that he set. I’m seeing it in bits and pieces. Just not consistently.”
Badgers guard Ben Brust admitted the team was struggling to adjust to life without Gasser, who would have eased the Badgers’ transition after losing standout point guard Jordan Taylor to graduation last season. Ten games in, Wisconsin still appears disoriented when needing to create a shot in late-clock situations.
“I think we knew it was going to be tough because we all knew what Josh brought to the table,” Brust said. “It wasn’t a secret. Collectively, we’ve got to come together and pick each other up and do the right things to get us going.”
Wisconsin’s early-season issues haven’t been helped by injuries to forward Mike Bruesewitz, who missed two games early while recovering from a lacerated leg sustained in preseason practice. Bruesewitz, a starter, then missed Saturday’s game against Marquette after suffering a concussion in practice.
Thus far, eight different players have started at least one game for Wisconsin. A year ago, when the Badgers finished 26-10 and reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament, the Badgers used the same starting lineup in every game. And while last year’s regular eight-man playing rotation featured two underclassmen, this year’s eight-man rotation features four underclassmen.
Certainly, the difficulties have been magnified with the Badgers being forced to play quality competition despite a relatively inexperienced lineup. Wisconsin’s four losses have come against opponents with a combined record of 30-5 (Florida, Creighton, Virginia and Marquette). But what separates the average Wisconsin teams from the special ones is the ability to sneak out a couple victories in that stretch.
Toughness, confidence and swagger — trademarks of the past — simply aren’t part of the present right now. Those traits could have willed the Badgers to a home victory against Virginia or allowed them to score more than 50 points in a loss at Marquette.
“For us, we have played some really good teams,” Ryan said. “The weaknesses that we have will show a lot more than maybe against some other teams. Our guys know what they have to work on. Now it’s a matter of just making the move up.”
Whether Wisconsin is able to bounce back, put the pieces together and make a run to the NCAA Tournament remains to be seen. But it may be more difficult to achieve that feat than in any other year since Ryan began because the Big Ten is absolutely loaded.
Consider that the Big Ten is the only conference with three undefeated teams remaining and six programs ranked in the latest Associated Press top 25 poll (Wisconsin isn’t one of those teams.)
Wisconsin should close the nonconference season with three victories against inferior opponents, and there are two winnable games against Penn State and Nebraska to start Big Ten play.
Then, the gauntlet begins. Nine of the next 11 games come against teams currently ranked in the AP top 25. The only other two games are against Iowa, which has significantly improved and beat Wisconsin twice last season.
Realistically, it isn’t a stretch to suggest Wisconsin could sneak into the NCAA Tournament with a .500 record in 18 conference games given the strength of the league. That would put Wisconsin’s record at 18-13, and the Badgers would likely need a win in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament come March. The last time Wisconsin reached the NCAA Tournament without 20 wins occurred in Ryan’s first season, when the team recovered from its 4-6 start and qualified at 18-12.
For what it’s worth, ESPN’s resident “bracketologist” Joe Lunardi projects Wisconsin as a No. 10 seed in the NCAA Tournament in his latest updates. The Badgers represent the last of seven Big Ten teams into the dance and likely one of the final at-large berths in the entire tournament.
That projection doesn’t mean a whole lot with 21 regular-season games remaining. But it does mean Wisconsin players have an awful lot of work to do if they hope to hear their team called on Selection Sunday this season.
The only certainty this year is that making the big dance won’t be easy.