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To foul or not to foul in late-game situations might be a hot topic for some college basketball fans, but we have arrived at the time of the season when another matter can be worth observing. Specifically, which teams appear fresh, and which ones appear to be running low on fuel.
Coming off a pair of thrilling, extra-session games last week, a fairly hidden nugget that might have helped the Badgers is the conditioning of those on the floor. Credit the players for their work ethic, and it might not hurt to tip your cap to veteran strength and conditioning coach Scott Hettenbach as well as athletic trainer Henry Perez-Guerra.
Yes, Ben Brust needed to sink his Hail Mary 40-plus footer, but the energy to make that moment possible, while still having the gas to play five more minutes, says something about how this program goes about its business in the weight room and beyond.
In the double-overtime victory against Iowa, five Badgers played 40 minutes or more. Last Saturday against Michigan, Brust played 40. In the two games, he was on the floor 85 minutes. It was at minute No. 80 when Brust ran his curl route and took a perfect pass from Mike Bruesewitz, which led to the buzzer-beating heave.
That was the highlight, but Brust was able to make a little magic after spending the late morning and early afternoon digging in on defense, which included chasing some very good shooters. That does not happen without a ton of hard work away from the fans and TV cameras.
For a younger player, it is only natural to hit a wall. Hettenbach admits that can happen, especially with freshmen. Yet his objective during the season is to help players gain strength.
"You are either getting stronger or you are getting weaker," says Hettenbach, now in his 18th year with the men's basketball program. "Our goal is to get stronger. It is too early just to maintain. We will start to try to maintain when we get into the Big Ten tournament and the NCAAs.
"Those last few weeks we will really start to taper back, and just make sure guys have their legs and are fresh."
Let us take a look at a veteran whose hard work and smarts came in handy last week -- Jared Berggren. Against Iowa, the big man logged 43 minutes. As the game wore on, he became better, and ended up with 16 points, 14 rebounds and 7 blocks. The man was flirting with a triple-double.
Berggren followed that performance with a 13-point, 8-rebound outing against Michigan. In the final minute of regulation -- which would have been about his 75th minute of playing time last week--Berggren rammed his way down the lane for a nasty dunk, which he turned into a crucial three-point play.
Hard to do that if you are low on energy.
Hettenbach says a key for anyone is to be intelligent in your recovery. Berggren is very intelligent.
"When it is time to rest, rest hard. When it is time to train, train hard," Hettenbach said. "He (Berggren) has been around long enough, so he knows his body, and he knows what he needs to do. He is probably one of the more diligent kids we have ever had as far as doing post-workout, post-practice, post-lift recovery.
"Doing all the rehab he needs for his shoulder (an injury he dealt with early in his career) and any other thing that pops up."
Hettenbach says as the season has moved along, Berggren actually has added muscle and lost body fat.
"He is stronger now than he was from the first day of practice. In fact, most of our guys are that way."
Yes, there are seven regular-season games remaining, but given the Badgers' run of three games in six days, with two of those games going to overtime, it only makes sense to believe that conditioning has played an important role in keeping the Badgers in the race.
You still have to make the shots and get the stops, but in the midst of a grueling Big Ten schedule, the Badgers continue to do what is necessary both on and off the court to have a fighting chance.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This week your friendly blogger will take a break from all things Badger football and focus on the basketball squad.
Yes, at times it has been a rough non-conference season. When you consider the season-ending knee injury to Josh Gasser, and Mike Bruesewitz being in and out of the lineup, the Badgers became a much younger team.
Given that, one might argue the Badgers have over-scheduled in the non-conference.
Take a look at the rest of the Big Ten. Five teams in the league played one true road game. One team will not have a true road tussle until conference play begins.
The Badgers are one of six Big Ten teams to play two games in what can be termed hostile environments. Four of the six were sent packing for one game as part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
The other two, Wisconsin and Illinois, simply scheduled a couple of trips on their own. Prior to winning the Maui Invitational, the Illini stopped in Honolulu to play Hawaii. Illinois also owns the Big Ten's most impressive road win to date after beating Gonzaga, 85-74.
It is fair to suggest that the Badgers' roadies at Florida and at Marquette are as tough as it gets in the Big Ten and probably beyond. While the results were not what Bo Ryan and company would prefer, it could end up making them stronger.
The Badgers are going through some growing pains, and everyone has a chance to observe them. The backcourt is young, and at times, can struggle. Most young players have their ups and downs, but fans should be encouraged by the upside of this group.
In the recent game against Green Bay, the Badgers recovered from a very bumpy start. Providing a spark was redshirt freshman George Marshall, who drilled a couple of 3-point shots. Traevon Jackson is showing signs of settling, as he was turnover-free and had two steals against the Phoenix. Those two continued to show progress last Saturday against Milwaukee.
And let's face it, there is a buzz when freshmen Sam Dekker and Zak Showalter step on the floor. They both continue to learn what Bo Ryan wants done and how he wants it done, but how do you not love the energy of these first-year players? You want to try to get to a loose ball before Showalter? Do so at your own risk.
As the head coach has stated, everyone needs to bring a little more to the table, both the veterans and the rookies. While Bruesewitz fights through a brutally frustrating stretch of injuries, fellow seniors Ryan Evans and Jared Berggren are fully aware of what they need to do. Both are proven players in this league, and no doubt, they are eager to crank up the volume as conference play approaches.
I guess I have been around Bo Ryan's teams long enough to know that what you see in November and December isn't necessarily what you see later in the season. His teams have a seemingly uncommon ability to improve. With the Big Ten looking to be as good as it has been in quite awhile, getting better is a necessity this winter.
This is where such a difficult pre-conference schedule can help. The venues in Gainesville and Milwaukee were loud, and there was little in the way of Badger Love in either location. The players have now been exposed to that type of atmosphere.
They will have faced Creighton, Virginia and yes, the state's other Division I schools. I include Green Bay and Milwaukee because you have to figure Wisconsin is a game they circle, and they always have a thorough scouting report on the Badgers.
The conference season will provide few, if any, so-called breathers. The Badgers' schedule through the last month-and-a-half could very well have them more prepared than most for what lies ahead.
History tells us it is worth watching to find out.
Earlier this week I was a guest on the University of Wisconsin's student radio station, WSUM, when it hit me -- the last time the Badgers went through a football coaching search, it is unlikely any of show's hosts was born.
Yikes, that makes me feel old.
By New Year's Day 1990, it became apparent that Notre Dame defensive coordinator Barry Alvarez was going to be Wisconsin's next coach. He came to town a tired but very happy man. The previous night his Irish defense stuffed Colorado in the Orange Bowl. During the NBC telecast, Wisconsin was getting some rare national publicity as the announcers talked about Alvarez taking over a program that had won four games in the last three seasons.
It is fair to say that few football fans knew much about Alvarez, but Pat Richter was impressed with the confident young coach, and the rest is history.
To say the last 10 days or so have been a whirlwind would be an understatement, but something fascinating is happening. Fans who might otherwise have had just a casual interest in the Rose Bowl (casual? Rose Bowl? I know that sounds odd, doesn't it?) are now excited, and some have opted to book their airline tickets to Southern California.
No doubt the folks at ESPN are smiling. Rather than harping on a five-loss team in Pasadena, the network has a beautiful storyline of a Hall of Famer returning to a venue he loves so much, and where he has never lost as a head coach.
Better still, the players themselves are thrilled that Alvarez is leading them to Pasadena. When Alvarez stepped down after the 2005 season, many of the current Badgers had yet to reach their teenage years, but they have a pretty good idea of what he means to Wisconsin.
It was impossible not to notice the excitement, from the comments of linebacker Mike Taylor and quarterback Curt Phillips last Wednesday, to the upbeat nature of last Friday night's team awards banquet. What happened was a jolt, but the team has endured more than its share of obstacles this season.
Now, the players view it as an opportunity. An opportunity to play for someone who is a living legend in this state.
It appears the assistants view it much the same way. Tight ends coach Eddie Faulkner and secondary coach Ben Strickland have firsthand experience playing for Alvarez. Running backs boss Thomas Hammock was a graduate assistant for Alvarez. The others know all about him.
Through no fault of their own, many members of the staff face uncertain futures because of Bielema's departure. Yet I am struck by the professionalism of this group, and the determination to make the Rose Bowl a granddaddy of an experience for everyone connected to the team, most importantly the players.
The Badgers will need every bit of that energy to defeat an excellent Stanford team. To be clear, the Badgers never seemed to lack energy, but what has happened in the last week-and-a-half appears to have provided even more of a boost.
It was plenty interesting around here on New Year's Day 1990. I'm thinking New Year's Day 2013 will be anything but boring as well.
While speaking to the Madison Sports Hall of Fame Club last week, a person asked me about the six Wisconsin football assistant coaches who last winter left the program for other jobs. The person asking the question is a very loyal Badgers fan, and seemed to struggle understanding why anyone would leave here.
A big part of my answer had to do with making a business decision. Yes, Madison is a wonderful town, and the University of Wisconsin is a world-class institution. I would like to believe those are facts, not just biased observations.
However, there can come a time in anyone's life when he or she needs to assess the pros and cons of an opportunity elsewhere. By and large, those former UW assistants accepted promotions and are being paid accordingly.
Sometimes you have to make a business decision.
That seems to be what is in play with Bret Bielema, who stunned fans and appeared to do the same to his team at the news of his departure for Arkansas.
When you win a lot of games, and Bielema's teams have averaged nearly 10 victories a season, you are going to hear from other schools, or even NFL teams. Especially when you are younger. At age 42, Bielema certainly qualifies as a younger coach.
It is no secret that there is more money to be made by coaching at several SEC schools, including Arkansas. Assistant coaches in that conference can make eye-popping salaries. The SEC has won the last six BCS national titles, and no doubt the folks at Arkansas believe they can join the party.
They have the money. They have the facilities. They have a rabid fan base.
Then again, take a look at the SEC West Division. The Hogs will deal with LSU, Alabama and Texas A&M.
An extremely rugged division, but it is an opportunity Bielema must believe he could not refuse.
I get it, and I wish him the best of luck.
When a coach leaves, it is natural for fans and everyone else to get emotional. I get that, too. But I would hope in time we can all look back and say Bret Bielema's seven years as Wisconsin's head coach were pretty good. The worst season was 2008, when the team went 7-6 and was thumped in the Champs Sports Bowl.
He learned from that season, and the Badgers have been good ever since. Championship good for the last three years.
Has Bielema turned off some fans? Yes. Following a living legend has to be a challenge to begin with, but it is obvious that many folks never warmed to him. Maybe it is the Iowa background. Maybe it is the two Rose Bowl losses. Maybe it is other game management issues. Or maybe it is something else.
But the guy won. A lot. And his teams won with good players who, with rare exception, have been low maintenance and high character on and off the field.
That isn't so bad, is it?
Bielema will move on, and so will the Badgers. It should help Badger fans to know that Director of Athletics Barry Alvarez knows what he is doing.
The University of Wisconsin head football position is a good gig. Alvarez is rather well connected in this racket, and far more than any of us, he understands the importance of finding the right fit.
As difficult as it might be, maybe the best advice for fans is to sit tight and trust the process. Alvarez likes to say he has been to "Handlin' School." In other words, he has ample experience handling tough situations. That is what coaches do. That is what athletic directors do.
Alvarez is both, and that gives the Badgers a good chance of finding an excellent coach.
In sports, I find the term "In the moment" to be perhaps the most appropriate three words to describe the emotions, the reactions, and yes, the overreactions of those who love to watch their favorite team.
Since I get paid to observe sporting events (I'm guessing you might use the term "stealing"), I believe I have at least some responsibility to take a look at the bigger picture. Some might call it spin control. Hopefully some of you will understand the point of today's column. Here goes:
In this strangest of Big Ten football seasons, the Badgers, with a 4-4 conference record, will play Nebraska Saturday night for a trip to the Rose Bowl. Win, and Bret Bielema's team will make school history with a third-straight trip to Pasadena.
Given the fact that Wisconsin has the sixth-best record in league play, we all know how some will choose to view the current state of affairs. But let us also remember that the Badgers did not make the rules, which were in place before the season began. Ohio State and Penn State broke the rules and paid for it with NCAA sanctions, including being ineligible for postseason play.
Is this ideal for the Big Ten? Of course not. What is the best way to avoid this situation in the future? Following NCAA rules and obeying the laws of society would be a good place to start.
To be clear, this is no reflection on the current players and coaches at Ohio State and Penn State. Those two teams put together excellent seasons and should be congratulated for their efforts. Urban Meyer's bunch ran the table, and Bill O'Brien gets my vote for national coach of the year. There are many young men in both programs who represent all that is good about the game. But everyone knew the drill back in July. The Buckeyes and the Nittany Lions would get 12 games. That's it.
Are the Badgers happy about being the third-place team in the Leaders Division? No, but they need not apologize for having the chance to win a league title. In a perfect world, they would have won the division outright. The last time I checked, the world is far from perfect.
Now to the matter of close games, and how the Badgers have struggled mightily the last two seasons.
Note the words "last two seasons." To hear some talk about it, you would think Bret Bielema has never won a close game in his seven years as the Badgers' head man.
Here are the facts. To date, Bielema's overall record in one-score games is 21-15. In Barry Alvarez's final seven years as the Badgers coach, Wisconsin was 20-17 in one-score games.
Breaking it down to include the schedule a school cannot control -- meaning the Big Ten slate plus a bowl game -- Bielema is 12-14. Alvarez was 14-15. Not exactly a ton of difference.
These numbers are not meant to be a Bret vs. Barry debate. I use these numbers of emphasize one of Alvarez's favorite sayings "It is hard to win." A simple, but very accurate statement.
In a close game, it is only natural to second guess any decision that does not work. Coaches sign up for that stuff. On the other hand, sometimes there is a bad bounce, a tough official's call (or non-call), or perhaps a perfectly designed play that results in a dropped pass, a bad throw, or maybe the guy on the other team just made a great play.
Lately, maybe it is a little bit of everything. I just know in 2009 and 2010, the Badgers were 8-2 in one-score games (5-2 in Big Ten games plus the bowls), so I am pretty sure the current coach knows what it takes to win the nail-biters.
One other thing. While the close losses have outnumbered the close wins, especially in the last two years, the Badgers did snag a rather significant down-to-the-wire tilt last year. For their efforts, they collected a very pretty trophy and a big, fat Big Ten championship ring.
The fact remains that despite the recent troubles, another trophy and more fat rings remain in play.