Smile Politely

What’s Wrong with Wisconsin?

The Badger Fan suicide watch is on. Wisconsin has lost three in a row, and now contemplates a stretch of games in which they’ll be favored to lose. Their next opportunity to blow a lead comes Saturday at the Assembly Hall (tickets available).

The mood in Madison is grim, and fans are readjusting their postseason aspirations. Wisconsin is the best Big Ten basketball program of the 21st century (yes), and head coach Bo Ryan has the best conference winning percentage since joining the league. Lately, the Badgers have forgotten what it’s like to be a doormat. The name Steve Yoder hardly evokes a grimace anymore. But now they’re up against it.

Their next six games, in order, are at Illinois, versus Purdue, at Northwestern, versus Illinois, at Penn St. and versus Iowa. The game against Iowa should be an easy win. But then, Wednesday night at Iowa should have been an easy win. The Badgers lost in overtime. Wisconsin has not lost four straight Big Ten games since losing eight consecutive conference games in January and February of 1998.

Illini assistant coach Wayne McClain is responsible for scouting the Badgers. He says the Illini match up favorably. For one thing, Mike Tisdale is tricky for anyone. But McClain worries about confronting a Badger team that’s been backed into a corner like a wounded … um … badger.

Click here to listen to McClain’s interview.

McClain’s analysis seems unusually optimistic (if straightforward) for anyone in the coaching profession. Coaches generally warn of dire, nearly insurmountable obstacles to victory. When playing Wisconsin, the obstacle is often Marcus Landry. Illinois has no one who can guard him, unless Chester Frazier is given his 3rd wing-forward assignment of the year (Robbie Hummel, Evan Turner). But most people expect Frazier to take on Wisconsin’s other dynamic scoring threat, guard Trevon Hughes.

Wisconsin has a static scoring threat in Jason Bohannon. This year, Bohannon has not struck fear into the hearts of opponents. He’s the only Badger starter shooting under 40% from the field, and shooting is ostensibly his specialty.

The Wisconsin foundation, the Badger bedrock, is Joe Krabbenhoft. He leads the team in field goal and free-throw percentage, and rebounding. He’s third in assists. Problematically, he doesn’t shoot enough. He’s fifth in scoring, because he gives up shots to inferior shooters (like Bohannon).


Since Dick Bennett took an awful Wisconsin team to the Final Four, ruining the entire concept of Wisconsin basketball (and basketball generally) for generations of would-have-been basketball lovers, Wisconsin has been branded with the “slow-down” label. To say a basketball team “likes to slow it down” implies a defensive struggle. It’s the hoops analog of a pitchers’ duel.

No one likes watching a pitchers’ duel, except pitching coaches. People go to baseball games for home runs. People go to basketball games for lob dunks, flashy passes, third-row rejections and long range bombs. Perhaps defense wins championships, but do we have to watch it?

Bo Ryan’s swing motion offense is nothing like Bennett’s anti-offense regimen (in which brawny, pugilist Badger forwards pounded the ball at each other, and over opponents, until it fell through the rim by happenstance). And yet this Wisconsin team seems to be playing slow-ball. They have a poor assist-to-turnover ratio (1.1), but they have 20% fewer turnovers than the Illini for the year.

Wisconsin scores more points than the Bennett teams (67 per game), and their offensive efficiency isn’t too bad (53rd in the kenpom), but their defensive efficiency is terrible (140th to Illinois’ 6th). So, as with the Bennett teams, you never know who’s going to win until the last minute. But at least it’s not because no one is scoring. It’s because everyone is scoring.


Are you seeing double Kevin Gullicksons? Don’t be concerned; by this hour, Kevin Gullickson is seeing double, too.

For the Badgers forward, the three o’clock tip off Saturday comes as a small blessing. Gullickson prefers to start drinking around noon, but on game days he often waits until halftime. Two weeks ago, Gullickson was arrested again for drinking & walking. That’s his third WUI. But who’s counting?

Coach Ryan responded by inserting Gullickson into the starting line-up. Wisconsin takes drinking very seriously (god bless ’em).

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