In the years I have written this blog, I have used the words "fine" and "line" rather frequently.
Here I go again.
For the third straight game, and for the fourth time in conference play, the Badgers have failed to get out of the 40s. Yet they have won two of those four games, and they remain in the mix for a high finish in the league race.
After Tuesday's loss at Ohio State, that might seem odd, but it is very much the case.
What might also seem odd is that, offensively challenged as the Badgers can be, their shooting numbers are very similar to a year ago.
In conference games, Wisconsin's field goal and 3-point percentages are nearly identical to last season. In fact, the Badgers are averaging one more bucket per game than last winter. The difference is at the free throw line.
The league-low free throw percentage is well documented. After not even getting to the foul line in Columbus, the Badgers are averaging 13 attempts per game and making 6.7. Last year, UW attempted 16.7 free throws and knocked down 13 a game (77 percent).
That is more than a half-dozen points off the board. Still, Bo Ryan's team is 5-3 in the Big Ten, which is exactly where they stood at this time last year.
Second-half defensive struggles against Ohio State aside, this group continues to grind away on that end of the floor, and more often than not, it continues to hold its own on the glass.
However, as the Buckeyes demonstrated earlier this week, a defensive breakdown here, or a turnover that leads to easy points there, can mean the difference between victory and defeat. Even if it happens on just a handful of possessions, as was the case at Value City Arena.
It is worth noting that Tuesday's game was the fifth in the last six outings against a top 25 team. While college basketball rankings have a much different meaning than college football polls, the point here is that the Badgers have had quite a stretch of tests against opponents many consider to be the big boys of the sport.
For the season, Wisconsin has faced seven nationally-ranked programs, more than anyone else in the nation.
That is not to suggest that UW is about to enter Easy Street. Far from it.
Up next is Illinois. In the first meeting in Madison, the Badgers put together a brilliant performance in a convincing win. Yet this is the same Illini squad that drilled Ohio State by 19 points and also won at Gonzaga.
Ranked or unranked, when Illinois is playing at its best, it can play with anyone.
So can the Badgers.
As we approach the halfway point of conference play, it is becoming clear that, in the Big Ten, the grueling schedule has a way of keeping every team in the league humble.
Let's face it, so far there appears to be very little separating first place from the middle of the pack. Some teams might look the part more than others, but the results suggest that looks can be deceiving.
Once again, the Badgers walk a fine line. However, in the nation's top conference, there is reason to believe they are not the only team fitting that description.
Yes, they need to somehow find a way to shoot straight. They need to find a way to get to the foul line, and then finish the deal when they get there.
While far from perfect, on most occasions the Badgers are doing enough things well to at least give themselves a chance. I still believe that if they keep guarding -- and grinding away -- they can make the second half of the Big Ten season very interesting.
This weekend, Bo Ryan and the Wisconsin coaches are participating in the annual Suits and Sneakers awareness weekend.
By wearing sneakers with their suits, the coaching staffs from both teams are trying to raise awareness of the many ways people can reduce their risk of cancer, like eating right, exercising, making healthy lifestyle choices, and following the American Cancer Society's recommended cancer screening guidelines.
Bo-Tie 'Dress up' the Kohl Center Saturday
Fans are encouraged to help up 'dress up' the Kohl Center by wearing today's 'Bo Tie' t-shirts provided by Coaches vs. Cancer Wisconsin as part of the Suits and Sneakers weekend.
People not attending Saturday's game can purchase the Bo-Tie t-shirt at the UW Bookstore online, or at Bucky's Locker room with all proceeds going to Coaches vs. Cancer.
This year's gala will take place on Saturday, May 4, 2013 at the Kohl Center.
In 2013, Coaches vs. Cancer Wisconsin will hold its 6th Annual Coaches vs. Cancer Wisconsin Gala, an evening filled with dinner, a silent auction and impressive keynote speakers. Past galas have featured special guests like Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim and ESPN's Jay Bilas.
Since its inception, Coaches vs. Cancer Wisconsin has raised over $1 million for the fight against cancer. The funds raised go directly towards the American Cancer Society's mission of celebrating more Birthdays.
Contact CvC Wisconsin at 608-662-7555 or CVCWI@cancer.org for additional information.
Charity Stripe Challenge Earlier this year, Bo and his wife, Kelly Ryan, witnessed over 1,600 UW-Madison students brave undesirable weather conditions to participate in the Charity Stripe Challenge, raising a grand total of $41,279.
"My wife and I did this event because we firmly believe that with enough funding, a cure for cancer will be found. We took this as another opportunity to have our team interact with the students and involve our campus in this event. What a fun time and for a great cause. I figure one of these half-court shots might be the difference in curing cancer."
Nearly all UW athletic teams were represented as well as numerous campus organizations, including the Homecoming Committee and Colleges Against Cancer. In total, 36 UW students made half-court shots, which were worth a $1,000 donation each and countless students made the $10 free throw.
As the snow melts and temperatures warm up, it is time to start thinking softball. The Badgers' first pitch of the 2013 season is on Feb. 8 and the season can't come soon enough. 2013 is bound to be a year full of tough tests, but the reward at the end of the season -- an NCAA regional bid -- will be worth the hard work.
Wisconsin is set to play one of the toughest schedules in program history, squaring off with six teams ranked or receiving votes in the USA Today/NFCA Division I Top 25 Preseason Poll, released Jan. 22, with the potential to face more at the Diamond 9 Tournament and in the Big Ten tournament.
The season starts with a trip to UNC-Charlotte where UW is set to play Notre Dame twice. The Fighting Irish received 43 votes in the poll, making them 26th on the list. Notre Dame, a 40-game winner in 2012, fell to Arizona in the final of the 2012 NCAA Tucson Regional.
Wisconsin's trip to Orlando from Feb. 22-24 holds the potential of another top-25 opponent. The tournament schedule won't be released until the end of January, but a year ago UW played Florida State, ranked No. 25 in the preseason poll, twice.
A trip west to California features the Badgers' toughest test of the early season. At the Easton Invitational, UW is scheduled to play No. 21 Stanford and No. 3 California. Cal, the No. 1-ranked team in the 2012 regional field, saw its season end against Alabama at the College World Series. The Crimson Tide went on to defeat Oklahoma and earn its first College World Series title.
At the Louisville Tournament in March, the Badgers are scheduled to play No. 22 North Carolina and No. 18 Louisville. Both teams were regional qualifiers in 2012, with the Tar Heels falling to Georgia in a regional final and the Cardinals losing to Michigan, also in a regional final.
The Big Ten season doesn't get any easier for the Badgers. UW will host Northwestern, a vote getter, at Goodman Diamond on March 27, and the return of the Big Ten tournament leaves the door open for a game against No. 15 Michigan.
A year ago, Wisconsin won a school-record 34 games -- an outstanding mark for the Badgers -- but did not receive one of the elusive bids to the regional tournament. This year, a tough schedule against ranked opponents will help Wisconsin build a resume worthy of a bid.
There seems to be little if any argument that the Big Ten is college basketball's best conference. Not only is the top half of the league strong, but it appears that everyone is dangerous. At home, or on the road.
While protecting the home court is an annual theme, this year home security is proving to be anything but a given. Through about one third of the conference season, winning in a team's friendly confines is about a 50-50 proposition.
Yes, under Bo Ryan the Badgers have enjoyed incredible success at the Kohl Center, but in such an evenly-balanced league, we have discovered it is unwise to simply assume the home team will always prevail.
Indiana found out the hard way last week in Bloomington, courtesy of Wisconsin.
Illinois found out much the same last week in a home loss to Northwestern.
Minnesota found out more of the same in a home loss to Michigan.
And yes, the Badgers fell two points short on Tuesday night against Michigan State.
On and on it goes in what is shaping up to be a wild conference race.
Last week I wrote about how the Badgers have every intention of being a serious player in the Big Ten title chase. At the same time, I suggested that it is realistic to expect some bumps along the way.
Well, here are those bumps. An eye injury to Frank Kaminsky. The flu bug that caught up with George Marshall. And a pair of close losses to Iowa and Michigan State.
Now, a deep and athletic Minnesota team comes to town for a Saturday afternoon game at the Kohl Center. The latest in a series of difficult challenges that will continue through the Big Ten tournament in Chicago, and hopefully beyond.
A Badgers-Gophers game usually has fans excited, as does a Badgers-Spartans matchup. This year, every conference game should get our attention. After Saturday's game, the next home date is the Feb. 6 rematch with Iowa. Eleven days later the Buckeyes come calling. Then it's Michigan.
March Madness? In the Big Ten, the madness is well underway.
Some observers firmly believe the league champ could have four or five losses. That alone might not be startling, but keep in mind -- for what it is worth -- in this week's AP and coaches' polls, there are five conference teams ranked in the top 15.
It is easy to get the sense that teams in this conference will spend the next several weeks beating up on each other. As of this writing, Michigan State leads the pack with a 6-1 record. To MSU's credit, it has closed out the tight games very well.
The best teams finds ways to win the close ones, but even a diehard Michigan State supporter might need to admit that Sparty is walking a fine line, especially in this league. Especially this year.
After last week's inspiring effort at Indiana, the Badgers' head coach talked about being a believer in the saying "What you did yesterday means little today." That was his way of saying there is a long way to go, and the focus should always be on "next."
That saying applies now as well. Certainly Tuesday's game was there for the taking, but off-target shooting proved costly. That game is done, so you move on.
There is another big game on the horizon. How big? Really big. The biggest game they will play this season -- until the next game on the schedule.
Since there is way too much season remaining, I will try to spare you the "I told you so" mumbo jumbo. But for the 5,000th time, I will say in regard to the Wisconsin basketball program -- the team you see in November and December isn't necessarily what you see in January, February and March.
In the last two games, Bo Ryan's group has given us prime examples of why the Badgers have been able to sustain such a high level of success.
The non-conference schedule included those humbling trips to Gainesville and Milwaukee, not to mention a pair of tough games in Las Vegas, which Wisconsin managed to split. Throw in a close loss to Virginia at the Kohl Center, and many were left wondering whether the Badgers' NCAA tournament streak would end. Who knows? But doesn't Wisconsin deserve the benefit of the doubt?
History tells us it does.
Overreaction is common, and most of us are guilty of it. The good news is Ryan stresses the opposite. That would seem to be one of the many keys to his success. The players and coaches simply keep working. No panic. No gimmicks. Just keep striving to get better.
The younger players continue to grow, and the veterans are playing like veterans. It helps to get healthier, and that is happening with Mike Bruesewitz, who embraced the eardrum-bursting noise at Assembly Hall with a joy that should remind us that sports really can be kind of fun.
Put it all together, and you have national attention-grabbing victories against Illinois and Indiana that has the rest of the Big Ten looking up at Wisconsin in the league standings.
I would imagine excitement is building for this team, but if you think the flight home from Bloomington was a rowdy ride, think again. Sure, there was a nice locker room celebration, and understandably the boys got a charge out of watching Jared Berggren bulldoze down the lane for his high-flying, rim-rattling, posterizing dunk.
Yet by the time the wheels were up (on the plane, not Berggren -- did you know he had "ups" like that?), it was time to relax and appreciate the night, with the understanding there is much more work to be done.
They refuse to overreact.
That is a good idea because Iowa is waiting. You know, the team that swept Wisconsin a year ago, and has the entire week to get ready for Saturday night's game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
They'll just keep trying to get better. Never too high. Never too low.
Before I wrap up this week's blog, it is time to give a little shout out to the scout team. Players such as Dan Fahey, Jordan Smith, Duje Dukan, J.D. Wise, Evan Anderson, as well as Zak Showalter and Zach Bohannon, who will run with the scouts as well as the regular rotation players.
Especially in these last two games, it has been a formidable challenge to mimic athletic teams such as the Illini and the Hoosiers. The scouts continue to do their jobs extremely well.
There is a long way to go, and this figures to be an extremely close Big Ten race, but on Tuesday night the Badgers served notice that they have every intention of being a serious player -- again. They have dealt with a few bumps, and realistically, there will be some more along the way.
That's OK. The Badgers are demonstrating that they know how to absorb a punch, and deliver a few counterpunches of their own.
Just a week ago the Badgers were nowhere to be found on the
national radar. Now after a pair of wins over top-15 foes, including UW's 64-59
upset at second-ranked Indiana on Tuesday, Wisconsin finds itself directly in the
Here are a few things being said about the Badgers:
After the Badgers' 64-59 win at No. 2 Indiana on Tuesday
night, you can lose the thought of Wisconsin having anything resembling a
"down" season. And you can repeat the phrase until it hums like a
Yes, some of the numbers get your attention, and not in a very good way.
• 38 percent field goal shooting • 20 percent from 3-point range • 41 percent from the free throw line
Playing in what many consider the toughest league in America, and the Badgers' early statistics might appear to be the ingredients for an 0-2 start.
Instead, Wisconsin's record is just the opposite in the Big Ten play.
No, the games against Penn State and Nebraska were not pretty. Not exactly a "work of art," as Jared Berggren deadpanned after Sunday's game in Lincoln. Who cares? The Badgers found a way to win, and once again, found a way to win on the road.
In Bo Ryan's time as Wisconsin's head coach, the Badgers have had more road success in Big Ten play than any other team in the league.
How did they add to that total at Nebraska?
"We did it with tough defense," said Ryan. "We got on the glass. We took care of the ball."
The Badgers really have taken care of the ball. They are guilty of just 10 turnovers in the first two conference games. In that regard, at least they are giving themselves a chance to score. The low scoring totals have little if anything to do with sloppy play. They simply are missing a ton of shots -- but they are winning anyway.
"How are we going to have to get better?" Ryan asks. "Shoot it a little bit better. Finish stronger around the basket. Get some confidence back at the free throw line, which I think can happen."
For those wondering -- yes, this team spends ample time in practice at the free throw line. They will continue to do that. Even if the team percentage was closer to 80 than 40, the Badgers would spend a lot of time at the line. That is how they go about practice. They try to be consistent in everything they do.
"I have been extremely proud of our players in past years," said Ryan. "When we have hit tough snags, or hit shooting slumps, that guys have been able to work themselves through it."
"We always have to keep in mind that other teams have to do it too."
Clearly, the Big Ten is not the only conference where scoring has been difficult. Take a look at last weekend's Big East scores, and you will see some games in the 40s and 50s. It happens, and while the winning teams are aware there is work to do on the offensive end, I doubt many of them are offering up apologizes for failing to score 50 points, but still getting out of the arena with a victory.
As for the free throw shooting, keep in mind that, last year, Ryan Evans shot 72 percent from the line. There is documented evidence that he can knock down his throws. He hit his final foul shots in Sunday's win. Maybe that can start to get him on the right track.
He has been willing to make fun of himself, and he also knows that when in doubt, opposing teams will start hacking him at crunch time. Evans will continue to work on his shooting touch, and hopefully that percentage will start heading in the right direction.
In the meantime, his head coach stresses that it is a good idea to embrace the challenge.
"I kind of think it's exciting for a person to work through a problem like this," Ryan said. "I think it will help (Evans) in the long run overcome a lot of other things."
So far this team has overcome the inability to shoot very straight. Defense, rebounding and protecting the ball have helped the Badgers to a 2-0 start. If and when the shots drop on a more regular basis, perhaps this team has a chance to become a bit more dangerous.
When Wisconsin and Nebraska meet on the hardwood this season, both teams will be wearing special adidas "White Out" uniforms. The first such meeting comes this Sunday in Lincoln, Neb.
Similar to the adidas jerseys worn by NBA teams on Christmas day, both team's uniforms on Sunday will feature a solid color blocking of team logos, word marks and numbers with minimal accent color and shimmer finish for a bold on-court look. UW's uniform will be completely white uniform with white lettering and numbers accented by red trim. The Huskers will wear a red-on-red variation.
Wisconsin is also scheduled to wear the white-on-white jerseys when Nebraska makes a return trip to the Kohl Center on Feb. 26.
Sunday's game between UW and NU tips off at 3:30 p.m. (CT) on the Big Ten Network.
Of course the Badgers' football season was supposed to end on a better note. Unfortunately, Stanford had other ideas, and thoughts of a better ending turned into a bitter one. When the sting of another Rose Bowl heartbreaker begins to fade, hopefully those who watched, and more importantly, those who played and coached, will remember why this team won a third straight Big Ten title.
Perhaps there have been UW teams with more overall talent. Maybe this group needed an additional playmaker or two. But anyone who paid any attention would never question the heart and genuine class of this team. To me, that is what made it special.
Early in the season, or probably even before the season, there was reason to wonder why Montee Ball returned for his senior year. An assault before training camp. Early struggles in general with the offense. An injury in the game against UTEP. There were plenty of reasons to second-guess Ball's decision to come back.
I think now we can say it worked out pretty well for the Doak Walker Award winner. Yep, by staying in school, the NCAA's career touchdown leader may have outsmarted us all.
It would be difficult for many of us to even try to imagine what Curt Phillips has gone through. With multiple knee surgeries, who would have blamed him for giving up the game?
I think now we can say it worked out well for the fifth-year senior. He started the final five games, and was able to live a dream by playing in the Rose Bowl, and playing well.
There are many other stories of players who overcame injuries, such as right guard Kyle Costigan. He was not going to let a "little" thing -- like a dislocated kneecap -- keep him off the field very long.
The return to health of cornerback Devin Smith was a big step for a secondary that turned out to be very solid. The improvement of Marcus Cromartie was fun to watch, and the play of safety Dez Southward should have everyone excited for next season.
The defensive line returns next fall, led by tackles Ethan Hemer and Beau Allen. The linebacking corps will miss Mike Taylor, an all-day tough and talented player who helped recruit a Hall of Fame coach back to the sideline.
To say the least, the 2012 Wisconsin Badgers had a few obstacles. Down-to-the-wire games that got away. An in-season change with an assistant. Then, a change with the head coach following a stunning performance in the conference championship game.
While Bret Bielema's decision to leave for Arkansas was quite a jolt, the chance to watch Barry Alvarez back on the field was a treat for players and fans alike.
"I had a blast," said Alvarez shortly after the game. So did the players, both past and present. Watching Alvarez lead his team out of the tunnel one more time in Pasadena is a snapshot I will keep in my mind forever.
To those who are leaving, the coaches and especially the senior players, I say thank you and wish you great success in the future.
To those who are returning, your future looks promising. New coach Gary Andersen and his staff are eager to get to know you better. While the result on New Year's Day was not what you hoped, my guess is the new boss liked much of what he witnessed in the last couple of weeks.
Hopefully there is a Rose Bowl title in your future. But until then, being the three-time Big Ten champs isn't all that bad.