Picked to finish second in the conference's preseason rankings, the Wisconsin women's basketball team proved that preseason rankings met absolutely nothing. Despite retuning every player, including program-leading Jolene Anderson, from a team that won 23 games and made the WNIT Championship the season before, the Badgers fell flat.
UW started 1-6 in conference, finished 16-14 overall and were a first-round KO against Villanova in the WNIT. Fans demanded that head coach Lisa Stone be fired, were disappointed when her contract was renewed and agreed when the Badgers were picked to finish 10th in the same preseason conference poll that picked them second a year.
Once again, the Badgers have succeeded in proving the rankings are just a bunch of numbers.
Finishing off the non-conference season 10-1, the third best mark in school history, had won 10 straight games and won the Paradise Jam Tournament by beating sixth-ranked Baylor by one, all with only one senior, three juniors and a plethora of inexperience on its roster.
But the problem for the Badgers under Stone has never been the non conference season, where UW is 61-36 (.623 winning percentage), it's been the Big Ten season, where Stone is 21-43 (.328) and UW has finished seventh or lower four times in Stone's five season.
After finishing the non conference season alone in first place, the Badgers, in their first conference game of the season, looked more like number 10 than number one.
Never showing much life after a nine day layoff, UW shoot 37 percent from the floor, trailed by 12 at halftime and were bullied in all faucets of the game, getting creamed, 73-63, by defending conference champion Iowa in a score that didn't describe the beating UW took.
"The fact that we allowed them 73 points and the way we ended the first half is something we'll learn from," UW head coach Lisa Stone said. "It is one game and one game that we'll learn from. We started playing good basketball too late and dug ourselves too deep of a whole."
In the season's first 11 games, the Badgers were winning not because of the personal on the roster, but because of the attitude on the roster.
With no legitimate scoring threat, the women on the court no longer make the costly mistake of relying on one player to carry the offensive burden. Too many times last season did the four Badgers on the court force the ball into the shot-happy Anderson, who shot 17.7 times per game.
Although she shot close to 44 percent, the Badgers never established a scoring balance, as only two players (Anderson and Janese Banks) averaged over eight points per game, a main factor that ultimately led to their downfall.
This season, four different players have led Wisconsin in scoring and the Badgers have multiple double-digit scorers in eight games already this season, including two games were four Badgers scored 10 points or more.
Against Iowa, the Badgers got three scorers in double figures but never found a rhythm from the perimeter, where the Badgers shot 6-for-19 (31.6 percent) from three-point range. Eliminate the two threes UW made in the last 30 seconds and that number looks even worse.
"It's a game of momentum and we just wanted to keep the momentum going our way more than their way," said sophomore Alyssa Karel, who added 11 points. "Tonight we just didn't couldn't get it done." The other disappointing factor last season for UW was its lack of disciplined defense, as the Badgers were a team of scorers and not defenders. Wisconsin ranked eighth in defensive rebounds (less than 24 a game) and tenth in scoring defense, giving up 66.7 points per game, including giving up 78 points or more six times.
Thanks to addition of assistant coaches Kathi Bennett and Otis Epps, bringing with them a stout defensive philosophy, the Badgers lead the Big Ten in scoring defense, giving up only 54.6 points per game.
The Badgers have held four opponents under 50 points, including holding Marquette to a season-low 48 points, a Kohl Center record .232 shooting percentage (13-56) and limited MU's star player, Krystal Ellis to a season-low seven points.
Against the Hawkeyes, Wisconsin gave up a season-high 73 points on a season-high 52.3 percent shooting, allowed four Hawkeyes in double figures, out rebounded UW 37-32 and couldn't cool the hot hand of senior Wendy Ausdemore, who shot 6-for-8 from the field and 4-for-5 from three to score a game-high 20 points.
"We didn't come to play until the second half with our defense and that's what hurt us," said sophomore Lin Zastrow, who tied her career high with 18 points. "It was all of us, not just one person. We play team defense and we didn't stop them as a team."
It's only one game in a long 10-week, 18-game season and the Badgers have surely showed that they have the work ethic to make this a surprisingly successful season. But the question the 5,553 basketball fans had on their mind about Stone's squad was if UW's gritty group really was for real?
Time will give the answer but if UW turns out a couple more performances like this, all the stellar work in November and December will turn the preseason numbers from ludicrous to reality.