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The Voice: Demise of basketball being greatly exaggerated

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Maybe I have become a bit spoiled. After all, for the last 25 years, I have had a terrific seat to watch college basketball, specifically the Badgers. They have won a lot, including this season. They have won in dramatic fashion. The Big Ten regular season was thrilling, and around here, that still matters.

Sure, it would have been fun to see the Badgers put together a run in the NCAA tournament. However, with an early exit, I actually was able to watch more tourney games than I have seen in years. It was entertaining stuff. At least it was to me.

Not everyone shares that opinion. There are some, including popular national talk show hosts such as Dan Patrick and Mike Greenberg of "Mike & Mike in the Morning" fame who were underwhelmed by this year's Big Dance.

Monday night's title game aside, Patrick told his audience that outside of Florida Gulf Coast's run to the Sweet 16 and the drama of Louisville guard Kevin Ware's injury, there was little that he viewed as compelling.

On his ESPN Radio show, Greenberg expressed disappointment at the overall quality of play. In his opinion, it simply wasn't very good.

I am sure those two have company in their critique of college basketball. I just tend to believe it is not in such dire straits.

Yes, the game could use some tweaks. There probably are several reasons why scoring is down. One-and-done players likely have hurt both the college and the NBA game. Perhaps the college game is too physical. Maybe there are too many AAU games and not enough drill work in the summer.

I can buy all of that. Yet sometimes we conveniently forget that great games do not require high scores.

Remember the 1983 title game, when Lorenzo Charles dunked at the buzzer to give North Carolina State a shocking victory against Houston? The final score was 54-52.

Or how about a year earlier, when a young player named Michael Jordan hit a jumper to give North Carolina a one-point victory against Georgetown? The final was 63-62.

Then there was three years ago, when Duke hung on to beat Butler. The Blue Devils survived only when Gordon Hayward's half court heave bounced off the glass, then the rim. Final score: 61-59

Yes, scoring is down. Yes, watching teams get up and down the floor is enjoyable to watch. But to me it doesn't define whether a game is good.

I think Wichita State made for a heck of a story. Badgers fans might remember Shockers coach Gregg Marshall, who in 2006 brought a Winthrop team to the Kohl Center and took Wisconsin to overtime. This year Marshall guided a nine-seed to the Final Four. 

LaSalle had to win a play-in game, also known as a "first round" game. A 13-seed made it through to the Sweet 16. 

Florida Gulf Coast made us aware of Dunk City.

Michigan, while falling just short of the national title, needed a stunning comeback to get past Kansas in the Sweet 16. Ohio State had two game-winners at or just before the final horn.

All in all, the Big Ten fared well in the NCAA tournament. Four teams survived the first weekend, two made the Elite 8, and Michigan, a team that went 0-2 against the Badgers, went toe-to-toe with the tourney's overall No. 1 seed.

The college game isn't perfect, but there soon could be some changes to make it better. Earlier this week, ESPN's Andy Katz reported the rules makers are looking at expanding replay in the final minute of games. Sounds good to me. 

For several years, the physical nature of games has been an issue, specifically defenders who constantly bump offensive players off course (called, oddly enough "bumping the cutters"). We will see what, if anything, is done about it.

I would guess every sport has hot topics. Basketball has its share. But overall, the product remains pretty solid to me. Perfect? No, but still very watchable.

I just hope next year I get to see more of the tournament in person.

After all, I am spoiled.

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Matt Lepay's "The Voice" is featured each week in Varsity, the official digital magazine of Wisconsin Athletics. Subscribe to get Varsity delivered to your inbox each Thursday, download the official apps for iPhone and iPad or Android, and check out the complete Varsity archive on UWBadgers.com.

The Voice: Rightfully, reason and responsibility prevail

The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgFor sports fans, at times it can be as easy to criticize a network or even a specific announcer as it is to rip on your own team. Most of us have done it, right? It is just part of being a sports nut.

This time, rather than ranting about what is wrong with the broadcasting biz, please allow me to offer praise to those in charge at CBS Sports. Last Sunday during the NCAA basketball tournament, the network faced a very difficult situation. Just when you think television, or broadcasting in general, is all about sensationalism, CBS opted to be -- shall I say it? -- responsible.

By now, we all know the story. Duke and Louisville in the Midwest Regional final. An intense, high stakes game featuring two tradition-rich programs. Suddenly, the game itself took a backseat to a terrible moment. Louisville's Kevin Ware, running out to the right wing in an attempt to block a shot, landed the wrong way. He also landed near his team's bench.

Ware suffered a compound fracture that was so ghastly, several of his teammates collapsed in shock and horror. Coach Rick Pitino admitted he nearly vomited when he looked at Ware's leg.

Within a minute or so of the injury, CBS showed two replays. The rest of the coverage focused on the reaction of the players and coaches. We could see the concern from the Duke players as well as coach Mike Krzyzewski. We could see the tears from Pitino, and the look of fear and genuine sadness from Ware's teammates.

The injury to Ware reminded me of a Badgers-Manhattan NIT game at the Field House in 1996, when  Mosezell Peterson suffered an awful knee injury. Because they had an up-close view of what happened, some fans seated near the floor became ill. From our broadcast position in the upper level, I knew it was bad, but we did not have a monitor to see a replay. The following day I took at look, not from the TV copy, but rather the team's video. I didn't need to see it again.

I suppose there are some who wanted CBS to show a few more replays. They recall the 1985 Monday Night Football game when Joe Theismann's leg injury was so bad that it frightened New York Giants hall of fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor. Or closer to home, when former Badgers great Tim Krumrie broke his leg in Super Bowl XXIII.

And let's face it, there are some viewers who just HAVE to see it. And there are some TV producers and other executives who are more than willing to please, all in the name of higher ratings.

Not this time, and for that CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus deserves credit.

We don't live in the 1980s or '90s anymore, so McManus allowed modern technology and common sense to rule the day.

The Huffington Post quotes McManus as saying "If people want to go watch the footage for whatever reason, they have the right to do so. I just didn't think we had any obligation to be the facilitator of putting that footage back on the screen. We documented it, we described it and we showed it, and I think that was enough."

It was enough.

To be clear, other networks have shown restraint, but it was CBS taking the lead. Anyone who wants to see the replay can do so at his or her convenience. On Sunday afternoon, some wise decision makers in a production room chose to spare us from taking one more look at a stomach-turning moment. We knew it was bad, and there was no need to show it again and again.

At least in this instance, responsibility prevailed.

Badgers know what to expect in March

The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgIt is safe to say the Wisconsin Badgers opened some eyes at last weekend's Big Ten tournament in Chicago. When you beat two teams ranked in the top 10 and take a third to the final minute, it only makes sense that people will notice. Even the skeptics had to admit this team might not be so bad. After all, who else went 4-0 against Indiana and Michigan?

While the Badgers might have surprised many, one gets the impression they did not exactly shock themselves. Quite the contrary. The players walked out of the United Center in less than a great mood. Sure, there is excitement about the program's 15th-straight trip to the NCAA tournament, but the Badgers departed Chicago knowing how close they were to winning a trophy.

"We know we can play with anyone," said freshman Sam Dekker. "It is not a surprise to us when we have big wins like that. We expected to come down here and win the tournament. That is plainly stated. I feel like most of the guys probably said the same thing."

"We let one slip away. That is a bitter taste, but we have to correct that and use that energy Friday down in Kansas City, and hopefully take care of business."

The business at hand is facing an Ole Miss team that is fresh off an SEC tournament championship. The Rebels will come to town with a five-game winning streak, which includes a come-from-behind victory against Florida in the conference title game.

Sunday's victory secured the first NCAA trip for Ole Miss since 2002. That little nugget brings up the question about how much, if at all, does experience matter in the Big Dance?

I figure it does not hurt to have it, but experience alone certainly offers no guarantees of success.

"The seniors have been through it and all that," said coach Bo Ryan. Then, ever the coach, he offered  the following advice: "But what the seniors need to be doing is talking to themselves about playing better.

"We need to have the young and the old if we expect to get something done in the tournament. Especially with the way they set it up in our bracket. There are a lot of challenges out there."

With Ole Miss, the challenges begin with trying to contain junior guard Marshall Henderson, who will shoot from anywhere and say almost anything. Flamboyant? To say the least. More importantly, Henderson can put a team on his back.

His teammates aren't too bad either. Reggie Buckner has rejected 91 shots this season, while 6-foot-7 senior Murphy Holloway averages 9.6 rebounds. He has 38 double-doubles in his career.

Similar to Wisconsin, Ole Miss has dealt with injuries. The latest for the Rebels occurred to starting point guard Jarvis Summers, who suffered a concussion in the Rebels' opening SEC tourney game against Missouri. Summers missed the last two games, but Ole Miss moved on, defeating Vanderbilt and the Gators in route to earning the automatic bid to the NCAAs.
All week we will read and hear about how these programs are polar opposites, but both the Badgers and the Rebels appear to be pretty good at proving people wrong, and I believe it is a safe guess to say both teams enjoy doing just that.

It never hurts to have a little fun, and Badgers guard Ben Brust is hoping his group can have an extended experience in college basketball's showcase event.

"It's a special thing," he said. "Everyone dreams of it growing up. You want to play in the NCAA tournament. So, enjoy every moment, but at the same time stay focused on the task at hand because we are capable of making a run."

That run begins Friday morning, and hopefully the Badgers will be running for the next few weeks.

The Voice: Ryan deserves credit for keeping streak alive

The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgLast fall, Bo Ryan and his fellow Big Ten basketball coaches told anyone willing to listen how good the league would be this season. Badgers associate head coach Greg Gard said there are no "feel-good" games. In other words, no team on the schedule would serve as a breather.

Ryan and Gard were right. So was everyone else.

The Big Ten tournament can be an excellent showcase for the league. In his perfect world, Ryan would simply play more regular season games, but even he believes this could be a wild weekend at the United Center. If you have a ticket to this sold-out show, consider yourself lucky.

As good as the tournament might be, it will be hard pressed to top the regular season. Give Indiana credit for winning the championship. In a sports sense, it truly was a game of survival.

Look at it this way. In the closing seconds of last Sunday's Michigan-Indiana game, the Wolverines' Jordan Morgan was trying to tip in a missed shot from teammate Trey Burke. The ball hung on the right side of the rim, then fell off. That was the difference between Michigan winning a piece of the title and being the fifth seed this week.

From the Badgers' perspective, that miss, preceded by Traevon Jackson's buzzer-beater at Penn State, allowed Wisconsin to earn a first-round bye for the 13th-straight year.

To some, if not many, this seemed to be shaping up as a season when the Badgers finally finished in the lower half of the Big Ten. It is the nation's best conference, and the Badgers were going to be without Josh Gasser. Mike Bruesewitz sliced his leg, then a few weeks later suffered a concussion. Young players had to grow up in a hurry.

Maybe it hasn't always been pretty, but they are growing up. Put it all together, and once again the Badgers exceeded expectations in the conference race.

For those efforts, Bo Ryan is the 2013 Big Ten Coach of the Year. Deservedly so.

As was the case the previous two times he was so honored, Ryan made it about the team. His name will be on the plaque, but it is the school he represents that makes him smile.

"It is nice because it always has the 'University of Wisconsin' coach. That is what matters the most. They get our brand in there."

It can be easy to wonder what might have been.  What if Wisconsin had held on at Minnesota?  Or what if they could have played better against Purdue on Senior Day.

Ryan knows that works both ways, and points out that more of those either/or games went the Badgers' way. Games such as the overtime thrillers with Michigan and Iowa, not to mention last Sunday's game with Penn State.

Through the injuries and the other challenges of the regular season, the Badgers finished in the top four -- again. That is a remarkable 12 straight years of a fourth-place or better showing. In the Big Ten, only Purdue has a longer streak, and that happened between 1920 and 1932.

"Take a look at the players from 2001 to now," Ryan said on his weekly radio show Monday. "You just say, boy, they were very consistent in their competitive values, in their style, in how they tried to get things done."

"You know, our teams haven't changed that much. Some years maybe you have a little more of this, a little less of that. But to be as consistent as they have been, I am extremely proud of the way they have played.

"(I am proud of) the assistant coaches, our philosophy -- we have made some tweaks, but we still try to do it on fundamentals, working hard, and good things will happen."

Despite the obstacles, the Badgers have made plenty of good things happen.

Now they get a chance to make a good thing even better.

The Voice: Seniors brace for emotional farewell

The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgWow. Give my wife a blog for one week, and she crushes me for my lack of pop culture knowledge. OK, until the last month or so, I knew little, if anything, about Ke$ha. I had no clue about the Harlem Shake. Guilty.

But completely unhip? I object.

For comfort, I turned to Ryan Evans. After practice last Sunday, the Badgers had a brief session in the weight room. Word has it the D.J. is strength and conditioning coach Scott Hettenbach. (FYI, hey kids,  D.J. means "disc jockey." The person who plays the songs. Back in the day, we called those songs "records").

Whatever the case, the music blaring included some selections that Evans loves. Current tunes you think? Nope. Try "Love Rollercoaster" by the Ohio Players. Or Heatwave's "Groove Line."  

Some 1970s funk. What your friendly blogger was hearing in high school. And Ryan Evans likes it.

"It definitely favors me," says Evans. That's the stuff I was raised on. I definitely like that when it comes on."

Thank you Mr. Evans. Maybe I am not unhip after all. Maybe, just maybe, I am "sneaky hip."  Seemingly out of touch, yet still fairly cool.

Let me dream, OK?

*  *  *  *

Onto the much more important matters of the day, such as the final week of home games for the Wisconsin basketball team. Time sure flies when you are having fun, and Badger fans have had a blast watching this team, from the double overtime thriller with Iowa, to the dominating performance against Ohio State. In the middle was the dramatic OT tilt with Michigan.

Even Bo Ryan jokes that he wonders how many people will claim to have been in attendance for "The Shot," starring Ben Brust. We guess about 150,000 -- at least.

Senior Day always has plenty of emotion. The good news is there will be more games to play. Two more regular-season games, on the road at Michigan State as well as Penn State. Then there is the Big Ten tournament, followed by postseason play.

Still, these seniors know the clock is ticking.

"It feels like yesterday we were preparing for Southeastern Louisiana," said Dan Fahey. "All the older guys have said that things fly by, especially your last year. Brett (Valentyn) always told me that. It really has sunk in. It really has flown by."

It is much the same for J. D. Wise, who admits he will be "Tryin' to fight back the tears."  

Each year following the final home game, there is a video presentation featuring each of the seniors.

With a smile, Wise offered up a bittersweet moment. "I was looking at the senior questions for the video. It's like sitting in my room listening to Closing Time," referring to the song released by Semisonic in 1998. (Yes, I have heard of it).

The season is far from done, but on Sunday afternoon five players will conclude a heck of a chapter in their lives. With it comes the challenge of balancing any tears with the task at hand.

"The idea is we want them to play as long as they can," says coach Bo Ryan. "That is what they keep in the forefront, that there is still a lot more (games) to play. As emotional as Senior Day can get, and it is emotional, you know our guys still understand that we've gotta play."

Hopefully, they will be playing quite a bit in the next few weeks, even if it won't be at the Kohl Center.

(Mrs.) The Voice: I desperately need your help with Matt

BY LINDA LEPAY
Mrs. Voice of the Badgers

Matt_Linda_Lepay.jpgI am here this week to share with you a big problem.  In fact this issue is so pervasive that it affects almost all aspects of my life.  It's sad; it's pathetic, and it's totally preventable. It may not be a problem for you (yet), but could you help a person out during these trying times?

My husband is utterly unhip.

This became apparent to me during the past couple weeks as pop culture and Badger sports merged together to give us high entertainment. In fact people everywhere are dancing, having fun and being silly.

Here's what I'm talking about:

1. Ke$ha inspires the men's basketball team. You've probably seen the YouTube video of the Badgers in the locker room jumping around to "Die Young" after they beat Michigan. Even Ke$ha got a kick out of it, tweeting that this was the 'hottest/cutest thing' she's ever seen.

2. The Grateful Red embraces the Harlem Shake. Heck, everyone is doing it, including Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

In addition to the dancing frenzy, the Grammy Awards were recently given out. This is music's big night where millionaire musicians mingle with billionaires such as Jay-Z and Beyonce.

These three events have meant that there's a lot of tutoring is going on at the Lepay house. For a guy who has made a career watching young people play sports, Matt is not tuned in to "what the kids are listening to." During the Grammys I felt like a Tanzanian native tour guide, pointing out singers and bands and explaining their significance.

Here's who Matt recognized:
• Justin Timberlake
• Prince

Here's who he didn't know:
• Everyone else

At one point I started talking about the The Black Keys and The White Stripes, which left Matt baffled. I even pulled up a YouTube video of The White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army" so he could listen to the bass line that is, gasp, being played in stadiums and arenas all over the country. 

(Note from Linda's husband: I AM aware of The White Stripes. Wow. Tough crowd!)

Matt is perhaps the oldest 50-year-old I know. I don't mean he's an old soul; I mean he still talks about the 1980s like it was last week. It dawned on me that his exposure to popular music ended the day he was fired downsized from a Top 40 station in Columbus, Ohio. The date was April of 1986. This explains why he knew who Prince was. (And didn't Prince look smashing at the Grammys with his fancy walking stick and sunglasses?) It also explains why he waxes nostalgic when Wang Chung is mentioned.

Look, if Tubby Smith can bust a move to Ke$ha, I'm pretty certain that Matt can learn about the ways of 21st century music. He just has to be a willing student. All work and no play makes play-by-play guys dull.

(Another note from Linda's husband: Hey, Gophers, get your own song, OK?)

Here's where I need your help. If you see Matt in person, my advice is to smile at him warmly and talk about popular music the way you would to a 3-month old beagle. Talk slowly and smile a lot.  I think the he'll learn best that way.

In the meantime, keep dancing and rocking, Badger Nation. I'll do my best to keep Matt in this decade.

(Final note from Linda's husband: Next, she'll tell me it is no longer cool to listen to Earth, Wind & Fire. And by the way, do NOT undersell the greatness of Wang Chung. Kids today would love it.)

The Voice: Preparation key to Badgers' second-half push

The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgTo 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.

The Voice: Once again, Badgers walk a fine line

The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgIn 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.

The Voice: Madness already underway in the Big Ten

The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgThere 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.

The Voice: Win proves Badgers deserve benefit of the doubt

The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgSince 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.
ON WISCONSIN