Wisconsin men's basketball team performing better than expected once again

Badgers off to 3-0 start in Big Ten play
Steve Megargee
The Associated Press

Wisconsin is at it again.

The 14th-ranked Badgers seem poised to outperform preseason expectations dramatically for a second straight year. This time, they’re doing it without the benefit of having an NBA lottery pick on their roster.

Wisconsin (11-2, 3-0 Big Ten) has won six straight and is tied for first place in the Big Ten standings with Michigan (9-5, 3-0). The Badgers can earn their first 4-0 start in Big Ten competition since 2012-13 with a victory Saturday at Illinois (9-5, 0-3).

That’s quite an accomplishment for a team that didn’t get a single vote in the preseason Associated Press Top 25.

“We all believe in each other, to be able to do the things we have to do, and we know we can,” point guard Chucky Hepburn said. “We depend on each other. We get after each other in practice. We see it in practice. Nobody else in the outside world sees it but us.”

The next couple of weeks could show whether Wisconsin is a serious conference title contender, with four of the next six games on the road. Leading scorer Tyler Wahl left a 63-60 victory over Minnesota on Wednesday with an ankle injury and didn’t practice the next day, leaving his status unclear for the Illinois game.

Yet the Badgers already have shown they’re better than preseason forecasts suggested. That was the case last season as well. Although the Big Ten doesn’t have an official preseason poll, The Columbus Dispatch and The Athletic release their own poll of beat writers across the conference. That poll had Wisconsin finishing ninth out of 14 teams.

One year earlier, Wisconsin was picked to finish 10th and ended up sharing the Big Ten regular-season title with Illinois.

“It doesn’t really matter what those people are saying or what anyone says,” center Steven Crowl said. “At the end of the day, you have to come play the games and go between the lines, and I think we do a good job of playing our brand of basketball — Badger basketball.”

The Badgers’ current roster doesn’t include a single top-125 prospect according to composite rankings of recruiting sites compiled by 247Sports.

Wisconsin’s lack of recent NCAA Tournament success also could play a part in getting overlooked: The Badgers reached the championship game as recently as 2015 and were in the Sweet 16 in 2017 but haven’t advanced beyond the round of 32 since.

Plus, Wisconsin had to replace All-America first-team selection Johnny Davis, who went to the Washington Wizards with the 10th overall pick in this year’s draft. The team is thriving nonetheless, improving from 30.6% of its 3-point attempts last season (the lowest of any Big Ten team) to second in the league this season at 38.2%.

“Being a better 3-point shooting team this year, it creates a lot more space for us to be able to drive,” said Hepburn, who has gone 28 of 55 from beyond the arc.

The Badgers have succeeded by finding the right players, regardless of their ratings.

Wahl, the nation’s No. 204 prospect in his high school class according to the 247Sports Composite, is a three-year starter who is scoring 13.2 points per game. Crowl, ranked 235th, is a 7-footer who passes well enough to have a team-high 3.2 assists per game. Connor Essegian, rated 226th, is averaging 10.5 points as a freshman.

Wisconsin’s potential was apparent in the Battle 4 Atlantis in November, when the Badgers scared into then-No. 1 Kansas before falling 69-68 in overtime. Wisconsin lost 78-75 at home to Wake Forest the following week but has since recaptured its knack for winning close games.

Four of the Badgers’ victories during their six-game win streak have been decided by five points or fewer, including overtime triumphs at Marquette and Iowa. Since the start of last season, Wisconsin has gone 18-5 in games decided by five points or fewer.

“Good teams find a way,” coach Greg Gard said after the Minnesota game. “When you’re not playing and clicking on all cylinders and sputtering at times, good teams dig down and find a way to get it done.”