Raise your hand if you thought Wisconsin would be sitting atop the Big Ten standings on Jan. 16th, 2013? Not even the most diehard of the Cardinal and White lovers would've told you that would be the case, especially not after back-to-back games against ranked opponents. After all they hadn't beaten a ranked opponent all season long. Yet, after a 64-59 victory over Indiana - their 5th straight at Assembly Hall and 11th straight overall over the Hoosiers - here we sit the morning after with the Badgers alone at the top of the Big Ten heap. They've also won 7 straight games since a 10 point loss to Marquette on the road in early December.
However, as improbable as all of that sounds perhaps the better question is can the Badgers stay atop of the standings? This isn't the normal Big Ten season to say the least and that alone would lead you to believe it unlikely that the Badgers stay atop the standings. I mean, take a look at just how difficult it's been to win on the road in the Big Ten this season, especially against ranked opponents. Just ask Michigan State and Ohio State what it's like - it ain't fun or pretty.
So, that alone goes against the Badgers, but so to does the schedule Wisconsin plays, at least according to conventional wisdom. Let's just take a look at it's next 8 games, shall we? Over the next 9 games the Badgers schedule looks like this: at Iowa, vs. No. 18 Michigan State, vs. No. 9 Minnesota, @ No. 11 Ohio State, @ No. 23 Illinois, vs. Iowa, vs. No. 5 Michigan, @ No. 9 Minnesota, vs. No. 11 Ohio State.
Can Wisconsin run the gauntlet? Maybe, but the likelihood of that happening is very slim considering they play SEVEN of those next eight games against current Top 25 competition. They'll need to shoot the ball like they have over the past two games and also play the best defense of their lives nearly night in and night out.
Now, to that last point, that's something that may just be achievable for this team - they've held 11 straight opponents to 60 points or less. That should tell you just how good this team actually is, at least defensively and we all know the saying is "defense wins championships."
Hell, just last night the Badgers held the Hoosiers to 28 points below their season average in scoring, while allowing just 11 field goals to anyone not named Cody Zeller. So, it's clear that defensively this team can hold anyone down.
But, just as important as defense is to affecting winning championships. So to can offense, at least efficient offense and again the Badgers come out well when that's considered. The Badgers rank 15th nationally in offensive points per possession (a.k.a. offensive efficiency) at 1.107. Combine that with the nation's 20th most stingy defense, at least according to defensive efficiency, at 0.864, and you have a team that can score enough to win and hold their opponents down enough to win as well.
At some point it's bound to not go well for them from the field, after all this is a team that's shooting just 44.6% from the field, which is just average, ranking 6th, in the Big Ten and we've seen it happen to them in loses to Florida and Marquette. However, we've seen them win games when they haven't shot well - just ask Penn State and Nebraska.
Of course only time will tell if they can stay atop the heap, but I will say one thing - doubt Bo Ryan at your own risk. All this guy does is keep plugging players into his system and keep spitting out contenders for the Big Ten championship. Expecting Wisconsin to end the season atop the heap may be a stretch, but so to is counting them out as contenders for the title as well. So, don't be surprised if we are sitting here follwing the next eight games with Wisconsin as survivors of a brutal stretch that puts them in position to compete for the Big Ten championship over the final month and that's all you can really ask for entering February, right?