The answer to this question should be a simple one. Bo Ryan and the Badgers are simply doing what they do every year – overachieve and contend for Big Ten titles.
The bewildering part of this is how timid and underwhelming this same team looked just weeks prior. This team has been rejuvenated from their previous funk to the top of the Big Ten. Badgers fans have gone from the pinnacle of the panic meter to eyeing championship rings. No matter how you look at it, the Badgers' 4-0 start is pretty remarkable given the way they played in the nonconference season (and even in first two conference wins).
For someone who spent five years in the program, I should not be surprised by any of this. But I am. Let's all try to explain this turnaround by examining what caused their poor start and their exceptional play of late. Then we'll try to calibrate this team's real value.
The main factor contributing to the Badgers slow start is injuries. Josh Gasser's impact on every aspect of the game over his first two years has been vastly underrated. Josh's combination of defense, playmaking ability, outside shooting, toughness and unselfishness are hard to find in a guard at any level. The shock factor of losing your lead guard is a tough pill to swallow. Losing your eccentric leader and hustling red mop-top Mike Bruesewitz for several early defining games hurt this team's morale as well.
Many attributed this slow start to the lack of certainty and experience at the point guard position. I think it was part of the equation as well. Running the show for an experienced group in a turnover-adverse system is a big responsibility and takes time to refine (ask any former Badger PG). George Marshall and Traevon Jackson are going to have tremendous careers, and they have grown a ton already this season. After turning to Jordan Taylor whenever the going got tough last year, this team, as a whole, faced an inevitable adjustment period searching for the answers to these adverse game situations.
It's hard to play confident when you're in the process of figuring out your role on the team. In early games, you saw forced jumpers, out-of-sync possessions and late defensive rotations from every position on the floor. Execution and trust in your teammates comes from repetition and experience, as is apparent with this season in particular.
So how did this team magically become first place in the Big Ten? While there are several factors in play, it all starts with the leader on the sidelines, Coach Ryan. One of Coach's most frequently used phrases is, "the game doesn't change." Coach's philosophy is based on consistent effort and improvement. Coach clearly defines the defensive rules you are expected to stick to early in the year, and you figure out pretty quickly to take high percentage shots and take care of the ball. Sometimes it takes a while for players to learn how to abide by this winning formula. Yet, it makes it easier to focus on improvement when the coaching you receive remains consistent throughout the year.
The Badgers are clearly starting to heed the cumulative messages from practices and film sessions, and are learning from their mistakes. The multitude of defensive breakdowns – allowing dribble penetration, easy post touches, miscommunication on switched screens, open transition threes and have drastically been reduced since games against Creighton and Florida. Since losing 60-50 at arch-nemesis Marquette, the Badgers have not given up over 60 points in a game. Coach Ryan is a master at developing these skills and decision-making processes as the year goes on. The learning curve is bound to be steep when you're experiencing growing pains at the key point guard position. Yet, the Badgers appear to be crossing that tipping point of putting this knowledge to use. The winter break period (no class! All basketball!) is drawing to a close, but it definitely helped the Badgers find their mojo.
Another reason for the drastic turnaround is the emergence of the senior front line, especially Jared Berggren. Those who have seen Jared play in practice and games for the last few years know that he has always shown flashes of becoming a dominant, NBA-caliber big man. He's always possessed a great array of post moves and a soft shooting stroke. Throughout his career, he has transformed his body from a heavy-footed freshman, to a springy, active, shot-blocker and rim-rattler. I think Jared is the most important player for this team, and getting him plenty of touches greatly helps this team win. As his assertiveness offensively has increased, so have the Badgers wins.
The Badgers also benefited from beginning the conference season with games against two of the perennially weaker programs of Penn State and Nebraska. As the Badgers found their individual roles, they could get away with poor shooting and still gut out wins against inferior opponents.
The game against Illinois reminded me of familiar challenge I've had in my career. When you are in a shooting slump, a lot of time is devoted to tweaking your technique and trying to figure out what's wrong. I've learned, at a certain point, you just have to disregard all technique, quit aiming and just let it fly. The Badgers, facing similar shooting woes, came out with a nothing-to-lose attitude and let it fly against Illinois. Brandon Paul and Illinois were deflated within the first five minutes. A raucous Kohl Center crowd was treated to a barrage of buried threes and explosive dunks (props to strength coach Scott Hettenbach for turning this team into the modern-day Midwestern Phi Slama Jama). Blowing out a ranked team in that fashion was the perfect way to enter into a primetime showdown with a top-5 team on the road (contrast this with Indiana coming off nearly blowing a huge lead against Minnesota at home).
Against Indiana, the Badgers came out with incredible swagger. Assembly Hall is one of the most intimidating venues in college basketball. Even in recent years, while we were blowing out Indiana late in the second half of games, their crowd remained wild until the final buzzer. This Badgers team seemed to genuinely relish the noise and pressure. There was not a hesitant shot taken all night. They answered every big play Indiana made, by committee, especially in the clutch. It was a treat to watch and was a night the players and Badgers fans nationwide will remember for a long time.
Despite the loss of Josh, this team has plenty of pieces to contend for a Big Ten title. Jackson has quickly emerged as willing to handle point guard duties late in games. You match his confidence and toughness (Jackson) with a complimentary young playmaker and outside shooter (Marshall). You have a fearless scorer, outside shooter and scrapper in Ben Brust (who played exceptional defense on Jordan Hulls Tuesday night). Sam Dekker is a future star and is as complete of a player as Wisconsin has ever had. Add in your three long, athletic and experienced frontcourt players, plus a talented young center (Frank Kaminsky), and there are few weaknesses to this bunch.
What makes this team especially dangerous is their versatility. They spread the floor at every position and have the athleticism to guard some of the elite scorers in the conference. The Big Ten season is very long, and this league is extremely deep. It will be interesting to see how this team handles the proverbial target on their back that comes with the first place position. The Badgers will continue to endure some growing pains, but confidence is a powerful and contagious force in sports. This team is playing as confident as any team in the country over the past two games. They have one of the best coaches in the country; one who specializes in building as the season progresses.
It is still uncertain how this team will finish the season, but it is certain they are capable of beating any team on any given night.