In the first Associated Press poll for the 2016-2017 NCAA basketball season, the Wisconsin Badgers found themselves holding the No. 9 ranking, their second-best preseason ranking in program history.
With this ranking comes huge expectations for the Badgers, who just last year stunned the college basketball world by making it all the way to the Sweet Sixteen after starting the season poorly. But the Badgers cannot afford to think about the postseason right now, and instead must focus on the tough test that lies ahead in their own conference.
Four other Big Ten teams found themselves in the top 25 this week: Indiana at No. 11, Michigan State at No. 12, Purdue at No. 15, and Maryland at No. 25. Last year, each of these teams finished the regular season with a better record than Wisconsin, with both Maryland and Indiana losing in the Sweet Sixteen with Wisconsin. There is a great deal of competition in the Big 10, with high-powered offenses like Indiana and Michigan State looking to continue their winning ways. The Big Ten title race is shaping up to be one of the best in the country.
Wisconsin, who will return all of their starters from last year, is in great shape to be crowned the champion of the Big Ten in the upcoming season. Senior Nigel Hayes (named 2015-2016 first-team All Big-Ten), freshman Ethan Happ (2015-2016 Big Ten freshman of the year), and senior guard Bronson Koenig (2015-2016 third-team All Big-Ten) are poised to build off of their excellent NCAA tournament run, and undoubtedly have the most experience of any Big Ten team.
For years, Wisconsin has been seen as a ground-and-pound, half court offense, relying on ball movement and good defense to win them games. Their slow-tempo offense is a trademark, and they have an efficient mindset towards each possession. If the Badgers want to take the next step into bonafide championship contenders, though, they will need to pick up their game offensively.
The Badgers struggled in several offensive areas last season. In scoring overall, Wisconsin ranked 12th in the Big Ten, averaging 67.8 points per game. As a team they shot a mere 42.6% from the field, with stars like Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig shooting 36.8% and 39.2%, respectively. Wisconsin’s field-goal percentage was good enough for 11th in the Big Ten, and their three-point percentage as a team was not much better, ranking 9th in the conference. The Badgers ranked 10th in free-throw percentage at 70.3%, and 12th in assists per game.
When it comes to shooting, the Badgers need their stars to step up and make shots. While Hayes struggled last year shooting outside of a few feet from the basket, he has shown throughout his collegiate career that he has the ability to make shots. As a player who often struggles to create his own shot, this swing offense will need to pick up the tempo in order to get Hayes some open looks and prevent him from having to post up near the basket on so many possessions. Like Hayes, Koenig has shown that he can make clutch shots, but he must look to do so consistently this coming season by being more aggressive.
It will be extremely important for the Badgers to not only make shots this season, but make a lot of them, considering the scoring that surrounds them within the Big Ten. Each one of the Big Ten teams not named Wisconsin in the most recent poll averaged more than 75 points per game, with no. 11 Indiana averaging a whopping 82.6 points per game. Michigan State has re-stacked their lineup with freshman like Miles Bridges and Joshua Langford. Indiana may have lost guard Yogi Ferrell, but junior James Blackmon Jr. is an offensive stud who will attempt to keep the Hoosiers scoring points. Maryland lost a number of starters prior to this year, but they still have leading scorer Melo Trimble, who is still a star.
Along with increasing the tempo on offense this year, the Badgers need to look to pass a great deal more. This falls on the shoulders of the floor general, Koenig, who only averaged 2.4 assists per game last season. To open up and space the floor more, the Badgers offense needs to speed up possessions, big time. They ranked 345th out of 351 teams in possessions per 40 minutes, according to Kenpom.com, and this shows the severity of their lack of ball movement. Koenig needs to get teammates the ball more, and there is no doubt that the experience and team chemistry that the Badgers have will help with that.
Wisconsin enters the season having the best scoring defense in the Big Ten, but it cannot cancel out a lack of offensive improvement. With games against high-scoring offenses like Indiana, Michigan State, Purdue and Maryland this season, the Badgers will have tough competition in their pursuit for the Big Ten title. Now, Wisconsin will have to take their consistent and impressive play on defense and apply it to the other side of the ball.