Polzin: A closer look at Wisconsin basketball's unfulfilling season
"How did this happen? Glad you asked," writes Jim Polzin.
Full disclosure: I packed for five days prior to leaving for the Big Ten tournament. It's the kind of thing you do just in case, even if you know the majority of that baggage won't be needed.
Well, the University of Wisconsin men's basketball team went one-and-done at the United Center and, as it turned out, I was home 24 hours after I'd departed for Chicago. Unpacking this bizarre 2022-23 season won't be quite as easy as unloading that suitcase.
Was this 125th season in program history disappointing? Oh, sure. Frustrating? You bet.
Surprising? It probably shouldn't be, in retrospect.
There were plenty of reasons to be skittish about the Badgers, even though they returned three starters from a team that shared the Big Ten regular-season title the previous season.
UW had to replace an NBA lottery pick in Johnny Davis. It also had to fill the void left by Brad Davison, who had played 5,147 minutes in his career, the majority of them in a leadership role.
Depth was a giant concern and why I wasn't all that shocked when the Badgers were picked to finish ninth in the Big Ten in a preseason poll of media members from around the conference. Did I think UW would finish higher than that? Yes, but only slightly.
My official prediction: An NCAA Tournament team, but one that would land just above the cut line after hovering around the bubble.
Four months later, the Badgers (17-14) found out on Selection Sunday they finished just below the cut line and won't be dancing.
How did this happen? Glad you asked.
UW's offense was historically bad.
The Badgers are 150th in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to KenPom. Their estimated number of points per 100 possessions against an average Division I opponent is 106.5, the program's lowest mark since 1999-2000 (106.3). Yes, that Dick Bennett-led outfit made it to the Final Four.
These Badgers were 330th out of 363 teams in 2-point field goal percentage (45.8) and 321st in free throw percentage (67.1).
UW wasn't all that efficient on offense during its 2021-22 championship season, finishing No. 62 in adjusted offensive efficiency, but Davis' heroics masked some of those issues.
The same couldn't be said this season, which brings us to ...
No stars emerged
Senior forward Tyler Wahl and sophomore point guard Chucky Hepburn were named to the 10-member preseason All-Big Ten team. Looking back, those honors may have fooled me into believing this team would exceed expectations this season. Think about it: Would a team with two of the 10 best players in the conference really finish in the bottom half of the standings?
Not that I expected Hepburn or Wahl to make the jump, as Davis had the previous season, but that neither of them was able to step into a starring role was problematic for this team.
Wahl's 2-point percentage dropped from 57.0 last season to 43.6 and his free throw percentage fell from 70.0 to 62.6. His usage rate went up, but his offensive rating plummeted from 106.8 to 92.0.
What I thought we'd see more of this season: The version of Wahl that took over in the second half against Ohio State on Wednesday night and helped the Badgers turn a 27-point deficit into a two-possession game. But those moments were rare.
Hepburn didn't take a step back — he was UW's only player to be named honorable mention All-Big Ten — but he didn't take a giant step forward, either. His assist rate increased and his turnover rate decreased, signs of maturity from a point guard. His 3-point percentage went up, but he struggled inside the arc. And while he played a giant role in some of UW's best wins this season — Marquette and USC, to name two — Hepburn struggled at times during the Big Ten grind while trying to play the role of closer late in games.
Nothing came free
Just as concerning as UW's ugly free throw percentage was that it didn't get to the line enough. Their free throw rate dropped from 32.4 last season — Davis spent a lot of time at the line — to 24.1, the lowest mark of the Bo Ryan/Greg Gard era.
Not having a slasher anywhere close to Davis' level hurt, and Gard couldn't come up with any solutions to that issue. UW ran a good chunk of its offense through Steven Crowl in the post, but the junior ranked among near the bottom among Big Ten starting centers in fouls drawn (3.5 per game).
Not helping matters was Crowl wasn't productive on the rare occasions he did get to the line: His percentage dropped from 80.0% in 2021-22 to 60.3%.
Stuck at home
UW's schedule is loaded with what-ifs, where a different result in even one game since the beginning of January might have been enough to get it in the NCAA Tournament. It went 11-9 in games decided by six or fewer points or in overtime and some of those close defeats are going to sting for a long time.
That list of regrets includes too many failures at what should be the friendly confines of the Kohl Center. UW lost six times at home this season, too many for a team trying to build a case for the NCAA Tournament.
Five of those games were decided by four or fewer points: 78-75 to Wake Forest, 69-65 to Michigan State, 54-52 to Northwestern, 58-57 to Rutgers and 63-61 to Purdue.
This team really would have been in trouble if not for two major offseason additions:
Freshman guard Connor Essegian was a defensive liability at times, but he gave an offensive spark desperately needed. Junior guard Max Klesmit instantly moved into the starting lineup and was a fixture on the floor because of his defense and toughness.
However, Gard wasn't able to land a transfer that would have provided some depth behind Crowl and Wahl in the frontcourt. Crowl, in particular, may have been able to be more efficient if he wasn't asked to play so many minutes.
UW made a run at two transfer forwards last spring, both in-state products, and was turned down by each: Grant Basile (Pewaukee) chose Virginia Tech, while Bennett Vander Plas (Ripon) picked Virginia.
It's unclear if Wahl will be back for a fifth season, but UW needs to add some frontcourt depth even if he does return. Gard acknowledged earlier this season that finding some size and experience is among his offseason priorities.
UW was healthy the first two months of the season and did most of its best work during that stretch. But January was a different story: Wahl missed three games with an ankle injury, and Klesmit two with a concussion, and UW lost each time.
February rolled around and UW returned to full health, but it couldn't generate the momentum it needed that month or in early March to get itself off the bubble. It finished the season with a 6-12 record over its final 18 games, never winning back-to-back games during that stretch.
The Badgers learned a ton of lessons throughout the 2022-23, some the hard way. Perhaps that pays dividends down the road.
But there almost certainly won't be any bags to pack for an NCAA Tournament destination this season. The reality is Gard and the Badgers have only themselves to blame for that.
Contact Jim Polzin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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