It seemed like a massive step back. The Badgers went 20-13 last season, a significant drop from their back-to-back 30 win seasons. However, that step was not as large as it seems at first blush. Wisconsin went 10-8 in conference play last year, but based on their point differential, they played like a team that won 12 or 13 conference games. But you don't need to be Pythagoras to recognize that the Badgers had some tough breaks last season. During a 6 game losing streak in January, the Badgers lost two overtime games, a one-point contest against Purdue, and suffered a 3 point loss in Evanston. That means Bo Ryan's team was 8 points away from winning those four, and that Wisconsin was not as average as their record suggested.
But it's still true that the Badgers were not as good as they had been. Although they were second in the league by conference efficiency, it's easy to forget how dominant Wisconsin was in 2007-08, sporting an efficiency margin of 0.18 in Big Ten play. For reference, those 15-3 Michigan State Spartans of last season "merely" posted a 0.13 number. Sure, Michigan State went all the way to the title game, but evaluating the body of work over the season, the 07-08 Badgers might have been even better.
_(America likes to settle things on the field. We want playoffs, we want undisputed champions, and when we aren't getting that, Congress gets involved. That's all well and good, and even if I wanted to change that, this is not the time nor the place. But I will point out that there are some side effects to this approach. It means that a .500 team will occasionally win the World Series, that a mediocre 9-7 team can go to the Super Bowl, and that a skinny kid from Akron can send a dominant team home a week early. Whether or not those things are good or bad is entirely a matter of perspective.)
The cause for Wisconsin's fall is apparent -- defense. Specifically, field goal defense. Forced to shoot over the towers of Brian Butch and Greg Stiemsma, opponents shot under 42% on their two pointers. When the team got shorter last season, that figure jumped to 49%. Ryan's scheme has never been about turning teams over. Instead, the Badgers typically rely on creating missed shots and gathering lots of defensive rebounds. They were outstanding on the defensive boards again last year, but there weren't quite as many missed shots as there used to be.
Offensively Marcus Landry had a tremendous senior season, especially during conference play. But it was hardly a one-man show, as five Badgers averaged 9 points or more per game in conference play. Overall, Bo Ryan put together a solid offensive team in Madison, yet again. And yet again, not many people noticed.
That brings me to the "Wisconsin Tax." The following chart details Wisconsin's offensive efficiency under Bo Ryan:
Even at the low points, the Badgers were averaging 1.03 points per possession. That would have ranked 4th in the conference last season. More often, the Badgers find themselves well ahead of that mark. Last year, they were the best offensive team in the conference. No doubt, however, that casual followers of the Big Ten probably don't realize how good Wisconsin usually is at converting possessions into points. Frankly, I think the pace at which Wisconsin plays helps create this perception. The Badgers generally walk it up the floor, and they are content to let the opponent do the same. Pace aficionados can complain all they want about the entertainment value of this approach, but they can't dispute that it can work - Ryan's tremendous success is proof of that. Moreover, the ways in which the offense excels (namely, avoiding turnovers) are not the kind of aesthetically-obvious methods that fit nicely into a 30-second SportsCenter highlight.
But I fear this approach has a harmful element to it as well, because Wisconsin is also perennially underseeded in my opinion.
Should Have Been...
Sure, there were a couple of times when the Committee bailed them out, but generally speaking, Wisconsin gets the short end of it come Selection Sunday. I'm not suggesting Ryan start running a full court trap and attempting high-risk dribble drives. Winning games, after all, is still the highest priority here, and Ryan clearly has found a style that helps his team win. But maybe it's up to the Badger faithful to start some kind of letter writing campaign to their local committee member. Hopefully this practice of taking away 2 or 3 wins away from Wisconsin ends soon. The way the Big Ten is shaping up this season and beyond, Wisconsin probably can't afford to continue shouldering this tax.