The last time Wisconsin missed the NCAA tournament, Will Smith’s “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” was the most unavoidable song on the radio, Titanic was the No. 1 movie at the box office and Nokia produced the most cutting-edge cell phone on the market.
That streak is in serious jeopardy already this season.
Wisconsin’s 59-55 loss at Temple on Wednesday night dropped the Badgers to just 4-6, matching the program’s worst start since its NCAA tournament streak began in 1999. They’ve now lost six of seven games against top 100 KenPom opponents including the most lopsided defeat in Kohl Center history, last Saturday’s 25-point shellacking against Ohio State.
There’s still time for Wisconsin to recover in the latter two-thirds of the season, but the Badgers’ margin for error is shrinking fast. They only face one more top 100 non-league opponent, Saturday’s home game against in-state rival Marquette. They also won’t have as many chances for quality conference wins as usual because the Big Ten appears to be down this season.
For Wisconsin to even play its way onto the bubble this March, it might need to win something like 12 Big Ten games. That’s a tall order for a team that has struggled to replace the production of Bronson Koenig, Nigel Hayes and several other key seniors who graduated last season.
Ethan Happ has once again performed like one of the Big Ten’s premier big men so far this season, but he doesn’t have enough help. Not only is Wisconsin shooting a dreadful 33 percent from behind the arc so far this season, the Badgers don’t have a single player besides Happ who averages more than 10 points per game.
Those issues were apparent against Temple as Happ erupted for 23 points, yet none of his teammates managed to crack double figures. The Badgers did not score for the final 3:31 of the second half, their hopes of victory fading when freshman Kobe King missed a potential go-ahead 3-pointer in the final seconds and Temple’s Shizz Alston sank two foul shots to ice it.
That Wisconsin turned to a freshman in that situation is symbolic of its problems this season. This is a program that historically has featured upperclassmen-heavy starting lineups, but this year’s rotation includes four freshmen and two sophomores. It’s nowhere near as experienced a group as the one that rebounded from a 9-9 start two years ago to reach the Sweet 16.
One piece of good news for Wisconsin is that it has yet to suffer a loss against an opponent outside the KenPom top 75 so far this season. Another is that Happ’s young supporting cast should improve as the season goes along.
But the hole is deep, the margin for error is slim and the season is already one third over.
Only Kansas, Duke, Michigan State, Gonzaga and Wisconsin have made the NCAA tournament every year since 1999.
The Badgers place in that quintet is starting to slip away.
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