Beyond early blowouts, b-ball Badgers face tough tasks
Using the term "cupcakes" to describe the first four teams played by the Wisconsin men's basketball Badgers this season would be an insult to soft, quickly consumable treats.
The teams - IUPU Fort Wayne, Savannah State, Florida A&M and Colorado - all finished in the bottom half of the 336-team Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), the ranking used by the NCAA in seeding its 65-team championship tournament each March. The Badgers, who ended last season ranked eighth in the RPI, finished off the futile foursome by a combined score of 328-179. Colorado managed the closest margin, losing in a relative squeaker, 78-52.
What coach Bo Ryan (who helps set the season schedule) learned from those blowouts - other than confirming that his players could pass, shoot and play defense effectively against smaller, slower, softer teams - is hard to guess. But since none of the games were available for viewing to those without the Big Ten Network, most fans were spared the burden of having to analyze what, if anything, these early victories meant.
We've been told by those who could see the game that Wisconsin started slowly before taking over in the second half to beat Georgia, the first legit opponent of the year, at the Kohl Center last Saturday. In his post-game remarks, Ryan admitted it took his players a little while to adjust to facing a competent and aggressive team.
"That's why the game's 40 minutes," says Ryan. "After 20 minutes, some of our guys learned some things, realized what was going on and made the adjustment."
It was a necessary wakeup call, but evidently not enough of a jolt to get the Badgers prepared for their first road trip of the season. Ryan's boys were thoroughly dominated Tuesday night at Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium, college basketball's storied mecca.
Duke's smaller, younger lineup got in Wisconsin's face early on defense, and the Badgers never found a rhythm, falling 82-58. Just two days after debuting at 20 in the Associated Press national rankings, Wisconsin proved it isn't as good as its record suggests. One bright spot was the play of freshman forward Jon Leuer, who was more aggressive in the paint than some of his veteran teammates.
Beating fast, physical teams like Georgia, Duke and the top Big Ten squads requires unshakable confidence, always in abundance for Ryan's teams when playing at their pace in the friendly confines of the Kohl Center. Ryan's swing offense has always relied on patiently working the ball inside to big men who not only can finish around the hoop, but pass to an open shooter on the perimeter. That part of their game often went missing at Duke on Tuesday night, even after being such a large factor in the Badgers' success against Georgia just a few nights earlier.
"They didn't care about how many fouls they were going to commit," says Ryan of Georgia. "They were just going to be very physical and make us counter, and we did and we got to the free-throw line. That's what you really have to like is when a team is being that aggressive - are you turning that pressure against them? - and eventually we did."
With Tucker and starting point guard Kammron Taylor gone, the Badgers are having to rely much more on senior guard Michael Flowers, a Madison La Follette product. Flowers left the team for two weeks before the start of the season for what the program called "medical reasons." Upon his return, he resumed his customary sixth-man spot, averaging 27 minutes and nine points a game coming off the bench.
"Mike is just fearless," says junior Joe Krabbenhoft, no slouch himself when it comes to sacrificing his body. "There were some rebounds [against Georgia] where I was just trying to block my guy out, and I'd see Mike flying in there. That inspires the team, and when we see him doing that, we want to play harder to try and match his intensity."
Flowers has also been credited for helping mentor sophomore point guard Trevon Hughes, the Badgers' emerging star and Flowers' top rival in the steals department (Flowers has 12 to Hughes' 13).
"He's better than last year from the standpoint of now he can actually help," says Ryan. "I see him helping [Hughes] in practice with some things, and that's good, and upperclassmen need to do that. So he's a guy who's been through the league, through a lot of tough nonconference games in his career here, so he's putting that to good use."
Fans should take full advantage of their handful of opportunities to see the Badgers this season - if only to watch Flowers, one of Madison's finest athletes, compete in his final year in a Wisconsin uniform.