Currently, the basketball team is what's on the minds of Wisconsin fans.
Coach Bo Ryan has begun to build a dynasty that his predecessors were unable to achieve. His teams are expecting to win every game they play in, no matter the opponent. Wisconsin basketball is now judged on what it does in its ninth consecutive appearance in the NCAA tournament. In all the years before Bo, making it to the tournament made Wisconsin a success, now it's demanded.
Constantly standing near No. 1 in the rankings for much of the season has created high expectations. In the past six years, 92 percent of the Final Four teams began the season with at least a five seed. Frontrunners for the College Player of the Year usually indicate how well a team will do. Most champions have had one guy that is the man, someone who can win the close game and carry the team through tough stretches. In the past four years Florida's Joakim Noah, North Carolina's Sean May, Connecticut's Emeka Okafor and Syracuse's Carmelo Anthony have all fit the bill while leading championship teams.
Wisconsin's season finale against Michigan State, an opponent they already lost to, will be the perfect scenario to test the Badger's resolve and desire. Then the team heads off to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Tournament. With Ohio State already winning the Big Ten title, Wisconsin can't afford to be shortsighted in preparing for that bracket.
In college basketball a team's wins and losses matter less much less than their production in the NCAA tournament. Until March Madness begins, all Wisconsin can affect is their seeding.
When compared to other sports, the Badgers get no measurable advantage by winning the conference tournament. Regular season wins in college football determine everything. The NBA and NHL grant one more home game to the team with the best winning percentage. In the NFL, it allows for a bye week and gives the team more time to recuperate. None of these rewards will be given to Wisconsin if they win the Big Ten Tournament.
To be fair, momentum and confidence can't be overstated in the final stretch. But, teams that win championships don't get momentum from beating teams they have already played twice. That's why it's called the second season. It is college basketball's greatest perk and drawback; any team can win because all previous games don't matter once the game begins.
College basketball champions need to win against difficult teams in neutral sites they have never played before. After the last two champions, Florida and North Carolina, made it to the Sweet 16, neither had played any of their remaining opponents during their regular season.
The shift of balance in the Big Ten may have taken place during Wisconsin's regular season loss to Ohio State, though only temporarily. Losing by one point to the other No. 1 team in the country on their home court won't help the team in any way. But, there's not a better possible loss the team could have imagined. What is home court advantage worth in conference games? Definitely more than one point. Wisconsin for the most part is in great shape for the madness.
The only possible pitfall to the upcoming run could be Brian Butch's injury. The 6'11" offensive talent is the team's leader in rebounds and third in scoring. If he comes back in time for the latter rounds he could cause defensive foul problems for Ohio State's Greg Oden, Florida's Noah, and North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough. All probably wouldn't be used to be paying that much defensive attention to an opposing center. Just ask then No. 2 Pittsburgh's Aaron Gray, an early candidate for Player of the Year, about how difficult Butch was to stop on his way to a season high 27 points and 11 rebounds.
Everyone knows Wisconsin can go deep this March, now they just need to do it. They are going to meet teams they haven't seen yet and had little preparation for. These are things the Big Ten Tournament can't prepare them for. The tournament should strictly be looked upon as time to heal Butch, get the rotation set, eliminate mistakes and tighten up the gameplan. If Ryan is doing anything more than that, the team is going to be in trouble come March.
Interviews from players and coaches might state otherwise, but the Badgers know only the NCAA tournament can judge them this year. The consequences of losing early in the first weekend would set the program back years in respectability, erasing all that Ryan and Wisconsin have worked for.