With the Big Ten season quickly approaching for the Wisconsin men’s basketball team, despite a lousy home nonconference tilt with Samford on Dec. 29, the Badgers can still improve their NCAA tournament seeding.
Notice I said NCAA tournament seeding. Many people have written off the Badgers after losing by a combined 28 points to Florida and Creighton — the only ranked teams Wisconsin has played so far.
Obviously things haven’t gotten any better at the point guard position over the last month-and-a-half. Both Traevon Jackson and George Marshall look questionable to be leading a team that was ranked No. 23 in the preseason. The season-ending ACL injury to Josh Gasser, the team’s projected starter at point guard, really was a big blow to a team that needs the position to be the focal point of the offense.
But this team has steadily grown by going 4-1 in December. Senior Mike Bruesewitz has missed two games this month and when he returned he was every bit as rusty as a kid that had lacerated his leg in preseason practice and suffered a concussion after that. ‘Bruiser’ is a kid that has become one of coach Bo Ryan’s pets for his physical play but the 6-6 223-pounder from St. Paul, Minn. must know that his offense isn’t needed as much this year. He is 8 for 27 from three, and the majority of those are open looks.
While Bruesewitz was being nursed back to health, this team leaned even more on upstart freshman Sam Dekker. The wiry kid from Sheboygan isn’t just a scorer, he is also an exceptional passer and is an above average ball handler.
But Ryan maintains a self-imposed rule that he doesn’t like to give freshmen large roles, instead reserving that honor for the trusty veterans that have put on a lot of miles running hills in the preseason and earning bruises by playing all-out all the time Ryan’s lockdown man-to-man defense.
However, that rule has to be amended this year. Dekker, despite a few hiccups on the defensive end, has proven to be capable of not only maintaining a large role but being the focal point of an offense that has struggled to find an identity much less a leader. Even Zak Showalter, who is ninth on the team with 10.7 minutes a game, has 7 steals and 15 rebounds — 9 offensive.
Whenever Dekker or Showalter are in the game, the Badgers are injected with plenty of energy. Both like to create off the dribble and are adept at getting to the free throw line.
The first three conference games vs. Penn State, at Nebraska and vs. No. 12 Illinois are all winnable games. If the Badgers have trouble going 3-0 then this brutal stretch in January is a nightmare: vs. No. 19 Michigan State, vs. No. 11 Minnesota, at No. 10 Ohio State and at No. 12 Illinois.
The pair of fantastic freshmen will get more open looks for senior big man Jared Berggren on drives to the basket because Jackson and Marshall have shown a problem on numerous occasions with the post entry pass.
The Badgers still need plenty of ‘Bruiser’ to get through a daunting Big Ten schedule but without a scorer and floor general like Jordan Taylor to lean on, they are going to need an energetic dynamic to remain competitive.
Wisconsin will get in the NCAA tournament by finishing in the top 7 of the Big Ten, the best hoops conference in the nation this year. But playing the freshmen tandem more will go a long way to wearing down bigger conference teams and will force this team to come together.
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