Is it time to panic about the Badgers?

What many guessed would be a rebuilding season for the Wisconsin Badgers’ men’s basketball team has looked to be just that through the first seven games of the season. While three of the squad’s four losses have been by a slim margin, their record of 3-4 puts them in a much tougher position moving forward than Badgers’ fans are accustomed to. An NCAA Tournament berth is often thought of as being merely a floor for the Badgers’ performance; this year, many are nervously starting to question that supposition.

Part of this concern could be overblown by the Badgers’ extremely difficult schedule to date. Of their seven games, four have been against ranked opponents, with the Badgers losing all four of those games. They did not look overmatched in any of those contests up until this past Monday at Virginia, which is an extremely hard environment to play in regardless of a team’s talent. Their losses against Xavier, Baylor, and UCLA were all very winnable games. The team’s lack of experience allowed each of those games to be lost in the final two minutes, which is somewhat unsurprising due to the youth of this team yet equally disappointing given the success we expect as Wisconsin fans.

However, this Badgers’ team clearly lacks the depth and talent of years past at the moment. Two freshmen are being relied upon in the starting five, with neither having been highly ranked as a recruit. Breaking into the starting five at Wisconsin used to be very tough as a freshman. Sam Dekker, a consensus top-20 recruit nationally, did not even start until his sophomore year, and that team was not considered to be chock-full of talent. Part of it may be a change in culture under Greg Gard, but it seems much more apparent that the junior class that was supposed to be the “next men up” simply are not effective enough to be trusted in a significant way.

Let’s look at the two upperclassman players that have exited the starting line-up as of late: Brevin Pritzl and Andy Van Vliet. Both were expected to take steps forward after playing sparingly last season. What were the results? Neither could hang on defense and have seen their minutes cut, with Van Vliet seeing a much sharper decline. Van Vliet did not even appear in the Virginia game. I believe that Pritzl can still be an effective bench contributor playing 15-18 minutes per game, but I am not quite as bullish regarding Van Vliet.

Simply put, on a “typical” Badgers’ team of the past, it seems like neither of these players could possibly have been expected to play significant roles. Their recruiting profiles are no different than many Badger success stories of the past, but they have not developed and improved as Badgers usually do, leading to the real issue holding the team back:  their 2015 recruiting class comprised of Van Vliet, Pritzl, Charles Thomas, Alex Illikainen, and Khalil Iverson. Only one of those players has made the crucial leap in this their junior season, with that being Khalil Iverson. Iverson still lacks adequate situational awareness, but his athletic gifts have made him a necessary and important part of this team. The other four have largely been a mixed bag of inconsistent play.

On the bright side, this year’s freshman class has given us signs of hope. Brad Davison has performed especially well, with Kobe King and redshirt freshman Aleem Ford playing well in complementary roles. The ineffectiveness of Van Vliet has forced Coach Gard to tap Nate Reuvers for minutes off the bench, and while he is clearly a raw work in progress, he will benefit greatly from the experience. These guys are a large part of the reason why you should not be in full panic mode just quite yet.

One more notable factor contributing to the Badgers’ 3-4 record is actually quite simple: bad luck. According to KenPom, the premiere analytics website covering college basketball, the Badgers have the fourth worst luck rating in the country, ranking 348th out of 351 teams. KenPom calculates this value by determining the difference between a team’s actual performance (record) and their expected performance based upon all statistical data. According to this model, the Badgers have fallen victim to some factors that KenPom cannot measure, which is interpreted as being “bad luck”. This should even out over the course of the season.

Despite all the questions and negativity I spewed above, this season is nowhere near a lost cause, remember that. It was expected that this team would struggle early on; none of us wanted to believe it, however. Once they learn how to perform and win in high pressure situations, watch out. With an All-American candidate in forward Ethan Happ, the Badgers will have a fighting chance against most opponents, and if the rest of the roster can round into form, we could see this squad firing on all cylinders when the bulk of conference play begins.

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