Despite Four Losses, It’s Far Too Early to Lose Faith in Wisconsin

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on November 29th, 2017

Wisconsin’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge loss to Virginia on Monday — its fourth defeat of the young season — rounds out the program’s worst month of November since 2002, when the Devin Harris-led Badgers lost to Weber State and Hawaii en route to a 3-6 start. This season, close defeats at the hands of Xavier, Baylor and UCLA, along with this week’s poor showing in Charlottesville, has left some wondering whether Wisconsin simply doesn’t have the firepower to remain a top-tier challenger in the Big Ten. After all, most programs don’t lose four heavily-used seniors and simply bounce right back. But Wisconsin isn’t like most programs. With Ethan Happ looking every bit the Big Ten Player of the Year candidate he was pegged to be and a key freshman emerging in the backcourt, the Badgers — one of the most consistent programs in college basketball — should still be viewed as a contender. Especially with the history that’s on their side. 

Ethan Happ and Brad Davison should keep the Badgers competitive. (AP Photo/Andy Manis)

The prevailing narrative for Wisconsin entering 2017-18 was that Happ, its ultra-skilled big man, would have to shoulder a massive load for the Badgers to be successful. “Now he’ll have to be even better,” the Wisconsin State Journal recently said, referencing the fact that Happ would need to improve upon his already-great 2016-17 campaign. Luckily, early results suggest the junior is more than up to the task. Through seven games, Happ is averaging 17.6 points, 9.1 rebounds, and 3.1 assists per night, posting an offensive rating (111.8) and shooting percentages on par with last year despite playing more minutes and using more possessions. He currently ranks third in KenPom’s Player of the Year standings, and his second-half scoring surges against Xavier and Baylor were key to the Badgers staging late-game (if ultimately unsuccessful) comebacks. Perhaps most impressive so far has been Happ’s ability to distribute the basketball. Often serving as a point forward in and around the paint, Happ currently boasts an assist rate (26.5%) that would make most point guards jealous. The notion that “Wisconsin will only go as far as Happ takes them” sounds far less scary now that the junior appears fully capable of carrying that heavy load.

Still, the loss of Bronson Koenig (14.5 PPG), Nigel Hayes (14.0 PPG), and Zak Showalter (8.3 PPG) — three of Wisconsin’s top four scorers from last season — has undoubtedly left Wisconsin in an offensive transition period. When Happ struggled or was underutilized last year, there were several talented seniors there to pick up the slack. Koenig was a prolific shooter who exploded for 28 points in Wisconsin’s First Round victory over Virginia Tech in the NCAA Tournament; Hayes, once considered a National Player of the Year candidate himself, poured in 19 and 22 points in the team’s subsequent bouts with Villanova and Florida. Needless to say, head coach Greg Gard had options. So far this season, the biggest question has been who, if anyone, will step up as the Badgers’ secondary and tertiary scoring options in lieu of those proven veterans. The good news? Seven games into the season, he may have already found himself an answer. Shooting guard Brad Davison, a precocious, tough-as-nails freshman, has been nothing short of excellent over the first three weeks of the season. After seeing limited usage against South Carolina State and Yale, Davison made his presence known against Xavier, Baylor and UCLA, averaging 13.0 points and 2.6 steals per game and showing his willingness to take big shots in critical moments.

In the Badgers’ blowout win over Milwaukee last week, the Minnesota native went for 19 points on 5-of-6 shooting from behind the arc. Through his first six games, in fact, Davison had posted the team’s highest offensive rating (130.0 ORtg) and true shooting percentage (68.9%). Even as point guard D’Mitrik Trice (10.4 PPG) continues to make (expected) strides offensively, it’s the 6’3″ Davison — a vocal leader willing to play through pain — who has been Wisconsin’s biggest pleasant early season surprise. The more he emerges as a consistent shot-maker alongside Happ, the better chance the Badgers will have during Big Ten play. Perhaps the most compelling reason of all to feel confident in Wisconsin — or at least hopeful — heading into Big Ten play is the fact that bad luck has played been in part to blame. The Badgers currently rank 348th out of 351 Division I teams in ‘Luck Factor’, thanks in part to three losses — all against KenPom top-50 opponents — during which they either led or trailed by one possession in the closing two minutes of regulation.

One could argue that poor late-game execution played a role, sure, but there’s no denying that close outcomes tend to even out over time. As for Monday night’s 49-37 loss at Virginia, a game in which Wisconsin mustered a paltry 0.65 points per possession? Well, it’s certainly not the first quality opponent to be swallowed whole by Tony Bennett’s defense. Finally, there’s this: Wisconsin hasn’t finished worse than fourth place in the Big Ten since 1999-2000, a ridiculous 17-year run that stands among the greatest active streaks in college basketball. Even that 2002 squad — you know, the one that lost to Hawaii and Weber State — managed to clinch a share of the conference title by season’s end. With Happ’s elite ability and several young players already stepping up, it would be foolish to suggest the sky is falling this season in Madison.

Tommy Lemoine (250 Posts)

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