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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Beanie Baby Badgers

Tuesday night's game against Purdue is one of Wisconsin's most important games in years. The momentum that has raised expectations over several seasons is on the verge of crumbling. The aura of invincibility surrounding the Kohl Center is fading. Onlookers are questioning the team's toughness. Beating the Boilermakers could restore the luster of the home court and make the statement that the Badgers will not ride silently into the sunset of this year's also-rans.

Then again, Wisconsin is in the kind of trouble that one game cannot fix. The last time the Badgers lost four games in a row was the final four games of the 2005-06 season, when UW went one-and-done in both the Big Ten and NCAA tournament. Despite RPIforecast.com projecting Wisconsin's final RPI to be in the top 40, the program is riding the worst Big Ten losing streak of the Bo Ryan-era.

The general consensus to start the year was that this was one of Bo's most talented teams from top to bottom. Wisconsin returned four experienced upperclassmen who contributed to back-to-back 30-win campaigns. So was everyone wrong about this team's talent? Does this bunch of players just not have the proverbial it?

One thing most people can agree upon is that Wisconsin has regressed defensively. The Badgers have an adjusted defensive efficiency rating much lower than in the previous two seasons, currently ranking 70th rather than in the top ten according to Ken Pomeroy's system. This places them in the middle of the pack in the improved Big Ten. In addition, bad positioning and perhaps a lack of inside size have led to UW committing far more fouls than usual, as John Gasaway's satire illustrates. In a related note, Wisconsin is shooting fewer free throws per field goal attempt and and scoring a lower percentage of its points from the charity stripe as well. The Badgers are taking the punishment, but not dishing out much themselves.

Once you accept these facts, it is easy to try connecting the dots from poor defense to less intensity, from lower intensity to a decrease in toughness. Even Bo questioned the hustle and toughness of his team this year. When faced with pressure, whether literal (UConn, Marquette, Purdue, Minnesota) or situational (Texas, Minnesota again, Iowa), Wisconsin's players shy away more often than they step up.

Take a look at the roster. Over the past two seasons, Wisconsin has bid adieu to one bonafide go-to player (Tucker), a streaky, fearless gunner (Kam), a tireless, lockdown perimeter defender (Flowers), a mobile, shotblocking presence capable of the occassional cheap shot (Stiemsma) and a fiery 7-foot former McDonald's All-American (Butch). Each of these players had a swagger about them. Several were true leaders and confident enough in their own abilities to take risks.

In case you missed it, Badger Centric took a fresh angle on what's been ailing the Badgers -- not enough bad shots from aggressive players. At the very least, an interesting thought. The current Wisconsin players appear uncomfortable stepping into the role of carrying a team on their back when needed. Balanced teams are great (see: 2007-08), but what you and I fear is a collection of highly-rated role players.

Having a team of skilled, "soft" players is not the only problem right now, but it cannot be swept under the rug. The toughest guy on the team is Joe Krabbenhoft, hands down. Krabby had an excellent game against Illinois, perhaps the only bright spot amidst terrible Wisconsin shooting. [box score] It is hard to spot any of his teammates playing similarly, however. I could make arguments for Tim Jarmusz and Kevin Gullikson possessing that intangible toughness and hustle, but neither is skilled enough to crack the rotation's top seven. That is a problem.

Jon Leuer is probably the most aggressive Badger offensively and you can see shades of that trait already in Rob Wilson. (Speaking of Wilson, Bo simply did not play the freshman enough against the Illini, which was inexcuseable in my mind. Wisconsin desperately needed his length and athleticism to slow down Demetri McCamey, as well as someone to shake things up on offense). In the starting five though, Trevon Hughes is the closest thing to a go-to guy and he's already been benched once this year. Marcus Landry and Keaton Nankivil are too laid back. Jason Bohannon is beyond laid back.

Collectively, Wisconsin has been forced out of its comfort zone. As a team and as individuals, the response has not been up to snuff.

Right now, I see a bunch of complimentary players. To turn the season around, Wisconsin needs to find some warriors.

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