Badgers mailbag: basketball and football questions answered

It's an exciting time for the Badgers, as the basketball team is looking to make a run in the NCAA tournament and the football team is trying to figure out who will be its quarterback next season. 

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The NCAA tournament and spring football are both here, so we’ve put together a catch-all mailbag. Want to know about Wisconsin’s quarterback race? (Of course you do!) Want to know what could slow the Badgers’ chances of reaching the Final Four? It’s all here, so let’s get to it:

Q: If the Badgers beat American, they will probably play Oregon, and their style of play seems to be the style that knocks the Badgers out of the tournament. How do you think we match up with them?

— Scott, Hudsonville, MI

A: It seems like every year in the NCAA tournament, there is a common refrain when it comes to Wisconsin playing up-tempo teams and how the Badgers will match up. Oregon ranks 10th in the country in scoring offense (81.8 points per game), so there’s no doubt they like to get up and down. But Wisconsin generally does an excellent job of dictating the pace of play against those types of teams. Take, for example, last year’s NCAA tournament opener against Ole Miss. The Rebels were held 20 points below their season average in that game. But what separates this year’s Wisconsin team is its ability to score from all five positions. Would an Oregon matchup create a contrast of styles? Certainly. I just don’t see the Badgers laying an egg in the first weekend, particularly one that has them scoring fewer than 50 points like last year.

Q: Who is your favorite to win the starting job for the Badgers’ football team next fall?

— Robert, Beloit, WI

A: It’s going to take quite some doing to unseat Joel Stave as Wisconsin’s starting quarterback this fall. I’ve said before, the coaching staff will be taking a real leap of faith if it chooses anybody else, simply because of Stave’s experience. Stave has started 19 games and is 13-6 in those starts. All the other quarterbacks on the roster combined, meanwhile, have thrown a total of one pass in a Division I college game.

Judging from the first few spring practices, Tanner McEvoy appears to be the quarterback in the best position to challenge Stave. He is much more comfortable in the system after a year at Wisconsin, and he presents the dual threat this coaching staff is looking for. Stave didn’t participate in any contact drills to allow for him to heal up from bowl game injuries. He’ll be back after spring break, however, and the competition will really heat up.

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I can see a scenario in which Stave is the starter but McEvoy comes in for specific packages during games. Teams would have to honor McEvoy’s throwing ability, I’d imagine, so he may prove pretty effective in that type of role.

Q: Do you think Joel Stave has reached his potential as a QB, or have his coaches reached their potential in teaching and training him?

— Carl Nickel, Bonita Springs, FL

A: No, Stave has not reached his potential as a quarterback. And no, the coaches have not reached their potential in teaching him. Stave is going to be a redshirt junior, which means he has two years of college eligibility left. This coaching staff has only worked with him for one year. There certainly are areas he needs to clean up, particularly footwork and accurately delivering the supposed "gimmie" throws. But the guy is only halfway through his career, so let’s see what happens in the next two years.

Q: Where do you suppose the football team will be ranked in the Big Ten West at the beginning of the season? What do you expect to be different offensively with this team?

— Richard, White Bear Lake, MN

A: Just looking at the seven teams in the Big Ten West — Wisconsin, Illinois, Purdue, Nebraska, Northwestern, Minnesota and Iowa — I’d have to say the Badgers will be among the frontrunners to win that side of the league in 2014. Nebraska is coming off a 9-4 season and a Gator Bowl victory against Georgia, and Northwestern completely fell apart in the second of the season last year. Those are the two teams that will threaten Wisconsin most.

This looks to be a good year for Wisconsin, if we’re basing it strictly on Big Ten schedules. Wisconsin’s crossover games are Big Ten newcomers Maryland and Rutgers — not Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State or Penn State. Wisconsin also plays Nebraska at Camp Randall Stadium. The two toughest road games are at Iowa and at Northwestern. In other words, there’s reason for Badgers fans to be encouraged about the prospects of reaching the Big Ten title game.

As for the offense, I’d imagine we’ll see more of the same, with a power running game that features Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement. The wide receivers have done little to inspire confidence in fans outside of Jared Abbrederis, and he’s gone now. The tight ends should be pretty heavily involved in the offense as well.

Q: Is the scholarship offer still on the table for Dominic Cizauskas of Mukwanago High School?

— Herb, Waukesha, WI

A: I’m not sure what’s going on with Cizauskas’ scholarship situation, to be honest. But I can tell you he probably isn’t likely to ever suit up for Wisconsin given his pending sexual assault case. Cizauskas was not listed among Wisconsin’s 25 scholarship signees on National Signing Day last month.

Q: Isn’t Creighton (potential Sweet 16 opponent) basically every team that knocks the Badgers out of the tournament every year rolled into one? Small school/underrated school with a gunner that will rain triples all day? Throw in the fact the gunner is the coach’s son (like UNLV last time UW was a 2). I love this UW team, but can you come up with a reason for me to advance them past the McDermotts?

— Ben V., Washington DC

A: Well, I’ll say that comparing Doug McDermott and Creighton to Kevin Kruger and UNLV isn’t really an accurate parallel. Not to scare anybody, but Kruger had 16 points in that NCAA tournament game against Wisconsin. McDermott, the fifth-leading scorer in Division I basketball history, has scored fewer than 16 points twice all season. So, yes, if Wisconsin reaches the Sweet 16 and plays Creighton, it’s going to be one heck of a matchup to stop McDermott.

What makes Creighton so scary is how well the entire team shoots 3-pointers. Four of the five starters shoot better than 40 percent, and the Blue Jays lead the country in 3-point shooting percentage (.421). I realize this has done nothing to assuage your fears, so I’ll try to come up with something.

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I can guarantee you Bo Ryan will make sure somebody other than McDermott has to beat Wisconsin. Last year, Ole Miss leading scorer Marshall Henderson made only 6 of 21 field goal attempts during the Rebels’ NCAA tournament victory against Wisconsin. And with Josh Gasser back after missing last season with an ACL injury, I’d love to see him try and defend McDermott, even if he gives up five inches to him. Remember that Gasser, an all-Big Ten defensive player, held Virginia’s Joe Harris to 1 for 10 shooting this season and Michigan State’s Gary Harris to 3 for 20 shooting during the regular season. And two years ago in the NCAA tournament, Gasser held SEC leading scorer John Jenkins of Vanderbilt to 3 of 13 shooting despite Gasser battling the flu.

Q: The last time UW picked up a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tourney, they seemed to have more inside game with Alando Tucker and Brian Butch. Is there a game statistic to support this? What’s your take on comparing this team to 2007?

— George Seward

A: Some of the comparisons between this year’s team and the 2006-07 team are natural, primarily because of both teams’ success. That Tucker/Butch team reached No. 1 in the country and drew a 2 seed in the Midwest Region. This year’s team reached No. 3 in the country — the highest since that ’07 bunch — and drew a 2 seed in the West Region.

But beyond the success, these two teams are constructed much differently. That team did not shoot the 3-pointer as much or as well as this year’s team. The 2006-07 Badgers took 3-pointers on 31.6 percent of their shots. They also made just 35.2 percent from 3-point range, which ranked No. 150 nationally. This year’s team takes 3-pointers on 39.3 percent of its total shots. UW is hitting 37.3 percent from 3-point range, which ranks No. 61 nationally.

Also keep in mind that, outside of Tucker and Kammron Taylor, Wisconsin did not have any other player average double figures in scoring. This year’s team has four players averaging double figures in scoring, with Josh Gasser close behind at 9.2 points per game. There is much more offensive balance this time around.

Q: A lot of people are picking Wisconsin to go to the Final Four. Is this hometown bias? How far do you think they can go?

— Larry, Milwaukee

A: I don’t think picking Wisconsin to reach the Final Four has anything to do with hometown bias. ESPN’s Jay Bilas and SI’s Seth Davis both have the Badgers in the Final Four, for example. I certainly believe Wisconsin can reach the final weekend of the tournament, primarily because of how consistently this team seems to score. What has doomed Wisconsin in recent years was either the reliance on one specific player to score (see Jordan Taylor) or not having enough confident scorers on the floor (see last year’s team). A potential game with Creighton in the Sweet 16 would be tough, as would an Elite Eight matchup against Arizona. But this really could be the Wisconsin team that finally reaches the Final Four under Bo Ryan.

Q: I don’t see Bucky losing to American, but what could trip Wisconsin up in this game? Or the next game against Oregon or BYU?

— Badger fan, Wisconsin

A: It isn’t unheard of for a No. 15 seed to beat a No. 2 seed — it has happened seven times before, after all. Of course, it would require a Herculean effort on American’s part. What the Eagles do have going for them is the Princeton offense, which they run so well under first-year coach Mike Brennan. If Wisconsin doesn’t have the patience to deal with constant motion and backdoor cuts for 35 seconds, the game could be close. And in the NCAA tournament, you just never know what happens if you give the little guy a chance in the final minutes.

As for Oregon or BYU, I think it’s simply a matter of showing toughness. We know this Wisconsin team can score more than any previous Bo Ryan team. But we’ve also seen stretches in which the defense seems to disappear. That is rare for one of Ryan’s teams, but it is cause for concern.

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