Like many fans of Wisconsin Men's basketball, I'm a bit bewildered by what's happened to the Badgers this Big Ten season. After three solid wins to start the conference schedule, they've dropped five straight, two losses coming in overtime and two in a row at home. Three of those losses were clearly winnable games, games that UW has pulled out more frequently in prior seasons, and two were games that nearly anyone looking at the conference schedule in December would have marked as wins (at Iowa and Minnesota at home). This leads us all to wonder-- what's been the difference? Why are so many games that UW would have dominated last season turned into close wins, and so many close wins turned into narrow losses?
Randy gave his own theory below, with his conclusion being (I think) that the team lacks talent overall, and that the coaching staff has been too safe in their recruiting strategies. He's also ranted to me over the phone about how the team lacks "heart," meaning there aren't enough guys who are busting their asses on every play. I agree with that to an extent. But my take is slightly different.
Namely, I think UW is suffering from a lack of depth and experience. In the last two seasons, UW has shown it can win either with a couple of very, very good players, and some guys in complementary roles, or when it's deep and experienced. I don't think it can win when it only has four upperclassmen, and none of them are dominant players. (Hughes can be dominant at times, but he's been on a frustratingly ineffective streak lately-- not shooting that well from long-range, not nabbing many steals, not drawing enough fouls and missing bunnies when he gets to the rim.) Last season the team had five upperclassmen. The year before, (until Butch got hurt), UW had one great player (Alando), one very good offensive player (Kam), and six upperclassmen. That's how you almost beat an Ohio State team with three lottery picks late in the season in their own building.
Hughes certainly can be great, and is at times. But he isn't able to carry the team, at least not when he's lacking a real back-up. (Hopefully, the development of Jordan Taylor should aid Pop over the rest of the season.) Bohannon is a heady player and a streaky shooter, but he's been in a slump, and seems to be trying to do too much. The only potential back-ups for those guys are a guard-forward who will never be a primary ball-handler (Jarmusz), and two true freshmen. So the team's two juniors and only experienced guards get asked to do a ton, and have worn down and become ineffective. Especially in this last five game stretch, where UW has faced five teams that play tight, pressure man-to-man defense, which really stresses opposing guards.
The two seniors, and only legitimately experienced frontcourt players, Krabby and Landry, are in similar predicaments. Krabby is doing everything you would have expected of him this season. He's a rebounding fiend, he defends very well, and he's showing much better touch than years' previous. But he's not a guy who you can go to when the shot clock is running down. Landry is a more skilled offensive player, but he has just never developed that lateral quickness needed to drive to the basket, and his low-post game looked a lot better in previous seasons when he was posting up the other team's forwards, not their center. With no Butch or Stiemsma on the floor, bigger, lankier defenders like Purdue's Johnson or Illinois' Tisdale are stymieing him in the post.
Although there's more depth there with Leuer and Nankivil and Gullickson rotating in occasionally, and the two sophs have both shown excellent offensive potential (although Leuer has been in a slump lately) neither of those guys are experienced defenders. Their breakdowns at key moments in games (like Nankivil failing to rotate back to the right man late in the Purdue game, leading to Kramer's wide-open three pointer), have been an absolute killer. But it's hard to expect more from them. This is their first real year of playing, and Bo is so quick with the hook that they're in and out constantly, and thus have trouble settling down and gaining the needed experience. And at this point, Jarmusz is only a decent back-up to Krabby--- his issues on offense, whether it's a lack of confidence or ability or both, make him a bit of an afterthought.
So really, I agree with Randy, it does come down to personnel. Four upperclassmen, none of whom are consistent stars. Five scholarship freshmen, only one of whom is currently contributing. Three inexperienced and tenative sophomores. That leads to a tough year, folks.
It's true that Ryan has had success with thin teams, but that's partly because he's been blessed with two of the best players in UW history in Devin and Alando. And last season did show that with just a lot of good, experienced (not great) players, UW could excel. Unfortunately, both things are missing this season. I don't think that's because they're recruiting coachable, hard-working, lesser talents. It's more about total misses in recruiting and development, and a failure to recover from those misses. I'll explain more in the next post.