So the Badgers lost the other night... at home... to Northwestern. Wisconsin isn't particularly injury riddled and for the most part has been a defensive juggernaut over their previously active eight-game winning streak. Everyone is fully on board with the coaching staff, free throw percentage is actually up (to a Bo Ryan murdering level of 66.6%), and the team from last year basically is completely back.
Yet even during a majority of their eight game win streak I couldn't shake the feeling that a loss was coming. Sure predicting that a streak will end eventually is pick with 100% certainty, but I would highly doubt you hadn't felt this coming for a while too.
Seriously... just listen to Nigel Hayes' answer in the first few second of this video from Badger Twitter.
In the words of Reading Rainbow:
"But don't take my word for it..."
So before we get into the crossroads that this team is presented with, it would behoove us to take a hard look at the team and understand why they are in the position they are (which once again is crazy because they lead the BIG 10 and are 21-4 on the season, yet for some reason we're all feeling what this team really is). So for you fine reader, here are some truths.
1. Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky aren't coming through those doors fellas.
The supreme talent of the Badger Final Four teams just isn't present with the 2016-17 team. That isn't necessarily a death blow as this iteration of the team has been playing together for a long time and has combined experience from guys like Hayes and Bronson Koenig with younger talent. This leads us to Truth #2.
2. Hayes and Koenig, by hook or crook, simply haven't been the guys this season that the team needs.
I'm sure the die hard fans are going to roast me over this comment but it's just the truth. It is believed that Bronson Koenig is injured to some degree although how badly we aren't sure. What I am sure about is that he simply hasn't been able to take over the offense like the team needs him to from time to time.
In the case of Hayes, things go back a little deeper. When Hayes was a freshman and sophomore playing with Final Four teams it appeared he was going to take the leap and step into the on-court-game-wrecker/future-NBA-draft-pick spot that Dekker and Kaminsky previously held. Short of the story though is that he followed up a disappointing junior season with a slightly better senior year. This season Hayes is shooting three-pointers at a 30% clip and free-throws at a 62% rate.
The pair of veterans just haven't been good enough. Period.
3. Free throws may not have directly led to a loss yet, but doesn't that feel like it's coming?
OK I admit that isn't really a "fact" as much as it is a "prediction" but come on. We've all felt this or said it out loud to our buddies. As I mentioned earlier in the piece the Badgers enter tonight's game against Michigan shooting just 66.6% from the charity stripe.
This actually represents a slight uptick from when it hovered around 60% a month ago.
There are two main perpetrators of this crime against Basketball and they would be Hayes (62%) and Ethan Happ (50.5%). Those two guys get a lot of attempts and judging by the numbers, it isn't the best position for them to be in. In fact, those two guys lead the team in free-throws attempted with 148 for Hayes and 111 for Happ. The next nearest total is Bronson Koenig with 43.
This may lead to an issue when the Badgers are facing a close game against a real opponent.
4. Who have the Badgers played this season?
Strength of schedule is all the rage in college sports these days which is why it wasn't completely surprising to see the Badgers left out of the tournament committee's worthless 'Top-16' thing the other day. Here are the toughest teams the Badgers have faced this year (and what they are currently ranked)...
#20 Creighton (lost)
#10 UNC (lost)
Unranked Syracuse (won)
#16 Purdue (lost)
Who is the Badgers' best win this year? Good quetion.
But don't take my word for it... Just look at their schedule.
So here we are at a crossroads for the Badger team. Their record this season is stellar, coaching seem locked in and the players have a lot of experience with each other. Tonight they have to go on the road to Michigan before they play the team currently in second in the BIG 10 Maryland on Sunday.
This two game stretch just may decide what type of team we are watching when it comes tournament time. If the Badgers use the Northwestern loss as a pivot point, grow from it and break out of their slump offensively, they will have a good chance of winning their next two games.
If they spiral and continue to struggle from the field their rankings both from the tournament committee and AP with plummet leading to a much harder road.
If I had to guess I would probably bet on Coach Gard, Koenig, and Hayes to pull their team through some recent struggles. When teams have as much experience as this Badger team does, it just puts them at an advantage over nearly every other team in the conference.
What I don't have to guess however is the importance of the next two games for the Badgers.