Wisconsin looks to end its Big Ten woes with improving roster
“Every night you step on the floor against a Big Ten team it’s going to be an absolute war,” Badger head coach Jonathan Tsipis said after the team’s final game before Big Ten play.
A few games into B1G play and the war is already getting more brutal. The Big Ten has only one team below .500 across the entire conference and three of its programs are ranked. But conference cannibalization has already begun, with only Indiana remaining undefeated in conference play.
The Badgers are 1-2 to start Big Ten play after turning in an up-and-down nonconference performance, torching the teams they should, but coming up short against more proven competition. The Badgers only beat two teams above .500 and lost three possible resume-boosting games against Colorado (12-2), Arkansas (13-2) and Georgia Tech (11-3). Two of those losses were blowouts, but a four-point loss in a neutral site game against the Razorbacks was a positive sign.
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That same trajectory continued into the first two games of conference play. Wisconsin was a 3-point miss away from taking Rutgers (12-2) to overtime, and they played Purdue (11-4) competitively on the road in an 11-point loss. But a loss is still a loss, particularly when it comes down to playing in postseason tournaments—something the Badgers haven’t done since 2011.
Saturday’s win against Penn State (6-8) is a step in the right direction, but recent history shows that the Badgers will need more than a step to make their long-awaited postseason return.
The 2018-2019 Badgers also finished nonconference play with three losses, including a close loss to Arkansas. That same Wisconsin team also went 1-2 in their opening three games of Big Ten play. The worrying stat is the 3-12 finish in conference play to finish that season.
“The returners, we’re always talking to the freshman about Big Ten play, how nonconference is totally different,” sophomore forward Imani Lewis said before conference play. “I think for me it was an eye opener.
Can this year’s team break the cycle of disappointing conference performances and bring the Badgers back to the postseason?
Tsipis thinks that they have the talent to make it happen
“This is the best team I’ve had here in four years and there’s no question where their potential is,” Tsipis said.
At the center of that potential stands Wisconsin’s twin towers, Imani Lewis and Abby Laszewski.
Lewis, a sophomore, has been the center of the Badger offense all year after an impressive freshman season. The 6’1 forward continues to get to the line at will, and is 22nd in the country in free throw attempts, per Her Hoop Stats. She’s improved her shooting from the line and is hitting 65.9% of her attempts.
Whereas Lewis was an established star on the team last year, Laszewski has made her leap towards stardom this season as a senior. Laszewski is averaging 11.8 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game, and has displayed a more polished post game this season. Her length and timing on the defensive end is indispensable for a Badger defense still figuring itself out.
After Wisconsin continued to turn in inconsistent defensive performances, Tsipis began to implement more zone. Whether or not that’s a reason for optimism is unclear—is it a positive sign that the Badgers have found success despite their still-improving defense or is it an unconquerable question for conference play?
“You have seniors that have been through three years and want to move up in the Big Ten and they know it’s not going to be easy, they don’t want things handed to them,” Tsipis said. “So I feel like I’ve been able to challenge them in practice with specific goals.”
Those seniors know firsthand how difficult conference wins are to come by, especially this year. Continuing to improve and banish those early-season demons is the only way to make sure they’re not the ones giving wins away.
“There are a lot of teams that are 1-1 [right now] that are going to be playing in the NCAA tournament,” Tsipis said. “And it’s going to be that type of 15 round big time boxing match every night.”
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