By Eric Rogers
MADISON, Wis. — The UW men’s basketball team is 16-0 through the first half of the season, marking the best start in program history. But what does that mean for the Badgers when tournament time rolls around?
Wisconsin made a mockery of Illinois Wednesday night in a 95-70 win, with five Badgers scoring in the double-digits. UW could have done better from the charity stripe, hitting 69 percent of shots, but that didn’t seem to matter as the team shot over 50 percent from the floor and 42 percent from downtown. They also made the Illini pay for missed shots, using a 20-0 run in the first half to set the tone.
That makes the Badgers 3-0 in Big Ten play, heading to Indiana for the next such game on Tuesday. With the 2014 NCAA tournament teams scheduled to be selected March 16, Wisconsin would have to play like the Bucks to miss out (Sorry, Milwaukee fans). With that, let’s take a look at what would stop the Badgers from making it to the Final Four:
Ohio State/Michigan State
- OSU is ranked third in both the Associated Press and USA Today Coaches polls, while MSU is fifth in the AP and tied with Wisconsin for fourth in the Coaches poll.
- The Spartans are coming off a momentous overtime win over the Buckeyes and figure to be a contender in the NCAA tournament as well as for the Big Ten Championship
- Michigan State also has a great selection of talent. Keith Appling can beat you in a variety of ways, while Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year Gary Harris is dangerous from beyond the arc.
- Oh yeah, and they have one of the nation’s top coaches in Tom Izzo
- Ohio State is another team that poses a threat to Wisconsin. Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott lead the nation’s top efficiency-based defense, averaging 7.4 steals per game.
- I still give the edge to Wisconsin, as they face both of those teams once this season with home-court advantage.
- The NCAA tournament hasn’t been kind to the Badgers. Wisconsin is just 25-18 since 1941, the same year they won their only National Championship. They’ve been bounced in the first round of the tourney five times, most recently in 2013.
- It goes without saying that Bo Ryan is a huge part of the success the basketball program has had in recent years. With this season leading his team to its best start in program history, Ryan was named the Jim Phelan midseason national Coach of the Year.
- It seemed the acquisition of local boy Sam Dekker was right from the beginning, and now that he’s had a year under his belt, he’s really starting to blossom. Dekker leads the team with 14.3 points per game and 6.3 rebounds per game. His intangibles and ability to hit big shots in pivotal moments makes him a key piece to the team’s success.
- Senior Ben Brust is probably one of Wisconsin’s most improved players. His numbers back that up, as he’s improved his overall shooting percentage from 25 percent to 42 percent so far this year. Brust is also lighting it up from the charity stripe, hitting 94 percent this year.
- Freshman Nigel Hayes has really emerged in the last few games, averaging 13 points per game over the last five. For his efforts, he’s earned back-to-back Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors, equaling the number of awards earned last year by Dekker.
While I believe Wisconsin has what it takes to go deep in the tournament and will probably make it to the Final Four, my gut tells me to only take them to the Elite Eight.