MADISON, Wis. — That noted basketball philosopher Hunter S. Thompson had a word for February hoops: the doldrums, he used to call it. We’d also accept the dog days, the grind, the muck, the pits, the slog, the toil, the travail and the wall.
As in, the one it feels like the Wisconsin Badgers just hit. At about 84 miles per hour.
“It’s such a long season,” ESPN analyst Tim McCormick told Land of 10. “I think that some of these teams that really excel actually are young teams. It’s new and exciting. And at times, it almost looks like the Badgers are — they’re like an old veteran team, a team that’s been through it so many times.
“They’re not bored, but it’s a little bit of a grind at this time of year. This is the equivalent of the ‘dog days of summer’ in baseball. You’ve played in so many games, you’ve been doing this for so long. They’re not bored, but they know the big stuff is coming. And they have a different gear and have a lot of confidence in them.”
Depending on your aspirations, the shortest month of the college basketball calendar can also turn into the longest, if the fates allow. And the early returns on February for the Badgers (21-4, 10-2 Big Ten), who visit Michigan tonight, haven’t exactly been kind. Or particularly encouraging.
An unconvincing home win over an Indiana side waiting to have a fork stuck in it was followed by a 1-point win at Nebraska that needed overtime and all kinds of karma. That, in turn, was followed last Sunday by a 7-point home loss to Northwestern that — even if you accept that the Big Ten narrative of 2017 is a Disney flick in which the Wildcats and Illinois have switched jerseys and real estate in the standings, “Freaky Friday” style — still feels like accidentally stepping on a stray piece of LEGO, barefoot, in the middle of the night.
“Look around the landscape of college basketball,” McCormick continued. “Everybody is getting beat by everybody. I feel like scouting reports are so deep. This is a season of parity. There are probably between 15 to 18 schools that could get to a Final Four, and that’s as big of a number as I can remember.
“I do think, in the Big Ten, Wisconsin and Purdue are the two teams that have unique enough styles and are good enough on the defensive end and good enough to have Final Four potential.”
‘Completely built for success in March’
“Potential” is the operative word here, but when two of Joe Lunardi’s projected No. 1 seeds as of late Thursday morning are Baylor and Gonzaga, you can already feel at least two regions in Bracketville with paper tigers at the top, just waiting to unravel into the sort of office-pool-melting chaos that March dishes out with gleeful aplomb.
If there is a silver lining to the Bucky-shaped cloud looming over the Kohl Center at the moment, it’s that shooting funks — guard Bronson Koenig is 7-for-his-last-31 from beyond the arc (.226), while wingmate Vitto Brown is 5-for-his-last-26 (.192) — don’t typically last forever and a day.
And statistically, among the so-called ‘Four Factors’ that portend NCAA tourney success, offensively and defensively, Wisconsin is only outside the top 90 nationally in one category — free-throw rate per field goal attempted, checking in at No. 243 at the start of the week. Granted, 243rd ain’t much to write home about, but neither is it all that much of a shock given an approach that still largely relies on either A) jump shooters; or B) forwards Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes finishing down low or kicking out to said jump shooters, and not much in the way of a Plan C.
‘I see Wisconsin as a low-maintenance team.’
— ESPN analyst Tim McCormick
Still, when they’re right, they also defend (opponent effective field goal percentage: 46.2, No. 34 nationally) and scrap like crazy. And ‘Defend and Scrap,’ no matter what particular metric you subscribe to, still translates awfully well to America’s favorite March axiom: ‘Survive and Advance.’
“They are completely built for success in March,” McCormick said. “They have veteran players. They understand what it takes. They’re a low turnover team, low possession. It’s a lot easier to slow a game than it is to speed one up. What I mean by that is, you can slow a team that loves to play fast by just taking long possessions. And they don’t turn the ball over, so they’re hard to run against.
“Their transition defense is, to me, the best in the Big Ten. They’ve got interior-exterior balance. Ethan Happ is so effective and he plays both ends of the court. Nigel Hayes, to me, is the X-factor for them. He’s capable of being an All-Big Ten player, but he also disappears at times … their guard play is strong. I really like Wisconsin.”
‘I don’t recommend getting off that wagon’
And yet Koenig is also the elephant in the room, a star trying to play hurt after suffering a left calf strain in a win over Penn State back on Jan. 24. A shooter with a bum leg is like a hitter with a bad hand — it messes with the swing, the rhythm and, ultimately, the result. Coach Greg Gard is taking the discretionary route, holding the senior out of the clash in Ann Arbor rather than risk losing Koenig for more games later in the calendar.
You know. The tournament ones.
#Badgers are facing the facts and getting Bronson Koenig some rest. Is it too little too late?
— Cory Jennerjohn (@CoryJennerjohn) February 16, 2017
“He can rest in April,” McCormick said. “He’s a very good player and he does rely on his perimeter shooting and, unfortunately, when you rely on your outside shooting and your legs are tired, it’s going to be a little bit more difficult. He’s going to be fine. He’s been through this so many times and he’s so smart. And he plays in a system where he does not need to do it by himself. He’ll get good shots.
“It’s like when you watch the Kentucky Derby and they make the last turn, the horses are tired but they know when to turn it on and they have that next gear. And I think we’re going to see that, to me, from the veteran players at Wisconsin.”
To that end, McCormick likens Gard to San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich and the Badgers of present to Pop’s Spurs. The kind of roster that can flip the switch when the time comes — assuming they can find it in the dark with all these blasted LEGO pieces on the floor.
“I see Wisconsin as a low-maintenance team,” McCormick continued. “They know. They know how to play. They know how to prepare. And they will be ready. I don’t recommend getting off that wagon.”
So maybe it’s not them. It’s us.
It’s that blankety-blank February torpor, the hangnail that doesn’t know when to quit. Although if Michigan drops another pin in the cushion, you wonder if the wagons will start circling again, at double time. Right along with the buzzards.