Reality check begins for Badger women
With 11 victories, the University of Wisconsin women's basketball team already has matched last season's win total. That gives the Badgers (11-2), Purdue and Indiana the most victories among Big Ten Conference teams so far. But this week's start ...
With 11 victories, the University of Wisconsin women's basketball team already has matched last season's win total.
That gives the Badgers (11-2), Purdue and Indiana the most victories among Big Ten Conference teams so far.
But this week's start of the Big Ten season begs the question: Are the Badgers ready to move toward their stated goal of finishing in the top five of the conference?
UW hoped for that breakthrough last season, but wound up ninth with a 5-11 conference record en route to an 11-18 overall mark.
The Badgers, picked for sixth by the media and Big Ten coaches in the league's preseason poll this season, appear better equipped for improvement.
Junior guards and leading scorers Jolene Anderson (Port Wing) and Janese Banks are playing at a high level, sophomore center Caitlin Gibson has shown improvement, freshman Rae Lin D'Alie has given UW a true point guard who's allowed Anderson and Banks to play the wings and the eight newcomers have injected enthusiasm.
"We are focused," Banks said. "We are determined. We've got a mind-set right now. We are trying to not let anything or anybody stand in the way of what this team wants to do."
The Badgers begin Big Ten play against Northwestern (6-7), the only team with a sub- .500 non-conference record, Thursday night at the Kohl Center.
"I think that is a big game for both of us," said Northwestern coach Beth Combs, whose team was picked for last in the preseason poll after finishing 2-14 and 10th in league play last season. "Wisconsin is looking to get themselves up to the next level. We are right on their tails. We split with them last year. That opener for us will be big heading into the rest of the league."
Two-time defending champion Ohio State again is the favorite to win the Big Ten, with the usual suspects -- Purdue and Michigan State -- expected to challenge, in that order.
Sharon Versyp, in her first season as Purdue's coach, thought that was a fair prediction, adding she was glad "we don't have the bull's-eye on our back."
Buckeyes coach Jim Foster -- a proponent of playing difficult non-conference schedules -- isn't fazed by the target on his Buckeyes. He believes Ohio State has a strong nucleus and scheduled accordingly, traveling to LSU (a loss) and Oklahoma (a win).
The Buckeyes certainly are looking to maintain their Big Ten dominance, but a primary goal is to advance further in the NCAA tournament after entering as a top seed last season and being upset by Boston College in the second round.
"Ohio State is the defending champion and has the defending player of the year (in senior center Jessica Davenport)," Purdue senior guard-forward Katie Gearlds said. "So, all roads to the Big Ten title go through Columbus."
Moving on up
The Badgers, who haven't finished higher than eighth in coach Lisa Stone's first three seasons, hope to be part of the upper crust. They last entertained a first-division placing by finishing tied for fifth in 2001-02 after tying for second in 2000-01.
"Ohio State is always good," Anderson said. "They have a great post player in Jessica Davenport and coach Foster is an excellent coach. They are probably the favorite, then it just breaks down from there. I see us in the upper half of it.
"That's where I see us right now. We have to continue getting better and just win games we need to win and, hopefully, we'll be up in the upper half when the Big Ten tournament comes."
How UW's seven freshmen react to Big Ten action will be one factor.
"I think right now we have some confidence and we know how to win," Banks said. "We know at both ends if we are down, we can come back. ... I think me, Danielle (Ward) and Jolene, especially -- we've been through it for two years -- we have to take it upon ourselves to get the young ones ready.
"They really don't know what to expect. ... We have to let them know everything is going to transition like 10 times harder. Like coach Stone said, the crowd is going to get bigger and the intensity is going to pick up."
'Ways to go'
Another issue is how well prepared the Badgers are after playing a relatively soft non-conference schedule that was constructed to build confidence.
As of Monday, the Badgers had a 64 RPI and a strength of schedule 189th out of 335 schools, according to Jerry Palm's CollegeRPI.com.
"I think we have a ways to go," said Gibson. "Like coach Stone said, we have some tweaking to do. But we have had some good games in preseason and we've shown a lot of spark and I think we are almost there."
The victory over Kansas State in Las Vegas and the defensive effort in a win over Kansas were highlights, while the Badgers' hiccups came in losses on the road against UC-Riverside and UW-Green Bay.
"I feel pretty good about it," Stone said when asked about her team's readiness for Big Ten play. "I am pleased with our kids' progress. We've stayed relatively healthy. ... When we come back, we'll be fired up for our best Big Ten showing in a long time."
Stone is seeking her first winning season at UW and needs five more victories to be assured of that. A winning record would place the Badgers in the running for a WNIT berth, while eight or more victories in Big Ten play would put them into consideration for the NCAA tournament.