The University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team exited the non-conference portion of its schedule with two impressive streaks in jeopardy.
Not only does extending a run of consecutive top-four finishes in the Big Ten Conference to 15 look like a daunting task, the Badgers also have some major work to do to secure a trip to the NCAA tournament for the 18th consecutive season.
Big-picture items such as the aforementioned streaks weren’t the focus of UW interim coach Greg Gard’s first discussions with his team after taking over for Bo Ryan, who abruptly retired on Dec. 15. Instead, Gard stressed the importance of making steady improvement.
“They’re excited,” Gard said last week. “They know they’re better than what we’ve performed.”
The Badgers (8-5) enter Big Ten play with a resume that is in rough shape.
UW has played only one team in the Sagarin Top 50, a 17-point loss at Oklahoma. Of the Badgers’ other four defeats, three came at home and two — vs. UW-Milwaukee (121) and Western Illinois (235) — were against teams currently outside the Sagarin Top 100.
Plus, two wins that seemed impressive at the time — vs. VCU in New York and at Syracuse — have lost their luster. The loss to UW was the first of three in a row for the Orange, who are No. 69 in the Sagarin ratings. VCU, meanwhile, is 6-5 and at No. 65.
The Badgers are No. 66 in the Sagarin ratings and No. 98 in the NCAA’s official RPI rankings.
UW was Jekyll and Hyde-like during non-conference play, sometimes within the same game. Never was that more apparent than during an 84-79 victory over UW-Green Bay on Wednesday night in which the Badgers nearly wasted a 30-point lead over the final 13 minutes.
“It’s a fine line,” UW assistant coach Lamont Paris said prior to the game against UW-Green Bay. “We’re three baskets away from being 10-2. But we’re also a couple of plays away from 5-7.
“The group is capable of a lot of different things — of losing to anyone on a day when we don’t have the juice, or beating anyone on a day when we do.”
The good news for the Badgers is they’ll have plenty of opportunities to give that deficient resume a boost in Big Ten play. UW will play two games each vs. what appears to be the three best teams in the league — Michigan State, Maryland and Purdue — and hosts each of those teams in the opening 20 days of conference play.
UW opens conference play vs. Purdue on Tuesday night at the Kohl Center as both the defending Big Ten champion and a long shot to repeat.
After the Big Three, there’s no clear leader in the next pack of teams. The Badgers are one of six teams with at least five losses, while 10 teams have at least three defeats.
Here’s a team-by-team look at the Big Ten, in alphabetical order:
Mid-term grade: D-plus. The Fighting Illini are 0-3 vs. Sagarin Top 50 teams and lost games to North Florida and Chattanooga in nearby Springfield.
Honor roll: Junior guard Malcolm Hill (18.7 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 3.9 apg); junior guard Kendrick Nunn (18.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg); redshirt freshman forward Michael Finke (10.3 ppg)
Math class: Opponents are shooting 46.1 percent from the field against Illinois, which ranks last in the Big Ten in that category.
Future prospects: Injuries have wreaked havoc on the Illinois roster. Point guard Tracy Abrams (knee) was lost for the season before it even began, and graduate transfer center Mike Thorne Jr., who was averaging 13.4 points and 8.4 rebounds, went down with a torn meniscus seven games into the season. Nunn (hand), sophomore forward Leron Black (knee) and junior point guard Jaylon Tate (finger) have returned to the lineup but Illinois coach John Groce still has his work cut out for him in Big Ten play.
Mid-term grade: C. You may have heard this one before: The Hoosiers are really good at putting the ball in the basket and really bad at stopping opponents from doing so.
Honor roll: Senior point guard Yogi Ferrell (16.1 ppg, 5.9 apg); sophomore guard James Blackmon Jr. (15.8 ppg); junior forward Troy Williams (13.9 ppg, 6.9 rpg); freshman center Thomas Bryant (12.2 ppg).
Math class: The Hoosiers rank third nationally in scoring (89.1) and fourth in 3-point field goal percentage (45.1).
Future prospects: Indiana is capable of beating anyone in the Big Ten because of its dangerous offense (No. 5 in the Pomeroy adjusted efficiency ratings) and capable of losing games it shouldn’t because of a leaky defense (No. 125).
Mid-term grade: B. This would have been one grade higher had the Hawkeyes, who are 2-3 against Sagarin Top 50 teams, not blown a 20-point lead and lost 83-82 at Iowa State on Dec. 10.
Honor roll: Senior forward Jarrod Uthoff (18.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg; 2.9 bpg); junior guard Peter Jok (13.3 ppg); senior center Adam Woodbury (8.8 ppg, 6.3 rpg); senior guard Anthony Clemmons (8.8 ppg); senior guard Mike Gesell (7.9 ppg, 7.0 apg).
Math class: Uthoff, who began his career at UW, is shooting 51.3 percent overall from the field, 46.4 percent from 3-point range and 82.9 percent from the free throw line.
Future prospects: The top three in the Big Ten appear to be established, but Iowa is the front-runner in the pack that follows. The Hawkeyes look like a solid NCAA tournament team who have plenty of experience in the starting lineup (four seniors, one junior).
NO. 4 MARYLAND (11-1)
Mid-term grade: B. The Terrapins are 1-1 vs. Sagarin Top 50 teams. Wins over Georgetown and Rhode Island that seemed impressive at the time lost their luster after both teams limped to the end of the non-conference season.
Honor roll: Sophomore point guard Melo Trimble (15.0 ppg, 5.7 apg); junior forward Robert Carter (12.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg), senior forward Jake Layman (11.3 ppg); freshman forward Diamond Stone (10.7 ppg); senior guard Rasheed Sulaimon (10.5 ppg);
Math class: The Terrapins lead the Big Ten in free throw percentage (77.1) and are second in field goal percentage (53.5).
Future prospects: Maryland was the Big Ten favorite entering the season. That label now belongs to Michigan State, but the Terrapins are still deep and loaded with talent. It wouldn’t be shocking to see Mark Turgeon’s team sweep the conference and NCAA titles.
Mid-term grade: B-minus. The Wolverines are 1-3 against Sagarin Top 50 teams.
Honor roll: Senior guard Caris LeVert (17.3 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 4.8 apg); sophomore swingman Duncan Robinson (12.5 ppg); junior guard Derrick Walton Jr. (10.4 ppg); junior swingman Zak Irvin (8.6 ppg); sophomore swingman Aubrey Dawkins (8.3 ppg).
Math class: Robinson, who sat out last season after transferring from Division III Williams (Mass.) College, is shooting 59.5 percent from 3-point range (47 of 79).
Future prospects: Michigan is loaded with talent on the perimeter — LeVert and Walton posted triple-doubles in back-to-back games — but its defense is No. 95 in the Pomeroy efficiency ratings and the lack of a post presence limits the Wolverines’ ceiling.
NO. 1 MICHIGAN STATE
Mid-term grade: A. The Spartans are 4-0 against teams in the Sagarin Top 50.
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Honor roll: Senior guard Denzel Valentine (18.5 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 7.1 apg); senior guard Bryn Forbes (14.2 ppg); freshman forward Deyonta Davis (8.4 ppg, 5.5 rpg); sophomore point guard Lourawls Nairn Jr., (6.3 assist-to-turnover ratio).
Math class: The Spartans are shooting 40.1 percent from 3-point range, with Forbes (49.4) leading the way.
Future prospects: The Spartans have established themselves as the favorite in the Big Ten. Valentine, arguably the front-runner for national player of the year, is expected to miss 2-to-3 weeks after injuring his knee in practice last week. But unless that injury lingers, Michigan State could make a run at a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Mid-term grade: F. The Golden Gophers went 0-1 vs. Sagarin Top 50 teams and lost at home to South Dakota, South Dakota State and UW-Milwaukee.
Honor roll: Senior forward Joey King (13.8 ppg); sophomore guard Nate Mason (12.5 ppg); senior guard Carlos Morris (11.4 ppg); freshman forward Jordan Murphy (10.8 ppg, 8.8 rpg).
Math class: The Golden Gophers are last in the Big Ten with a minus-2.2 rebounding margin.
Future prospects: Minnesota wants to play at a fast tempo and force turnovers. It hasn’t been effective with either one of those missions, which helps explain the struggles to date. It’s tough to imagine those issues being solved in January, February and March.
Mid-term grade: C-minus. The Cornhuskers are 0-3 vs. Sagarin Top 50 teams and have a home loss to Samford on their resume.
Honor roll: Junior guard Andrew White III (17.1 ppg, 5.5 rpg); senior forward Shavon Shields (16.3 ppg, 5.5 rpg); junior guard Tai Webster (9.3 ppg).
Math class: The Cornhuskers shot 28.6 percent from 3-point range last season. That number is up to 35.6 percent in 2015-16 thanks in large part to White, a transfer from Kansas who is shooting 41.6 percent from beyond the arc.
Future prospects: Even with a pair of proven scorers in the lineup, Nebraska’s offense is still struggling in terms of efficiency numbers. One major issue the Cornhuskers need to correct to avoid a second consecutive bottom-four finish is turnovers.
Mid-term grade: B. Don’t ignore the Wildcats’ sparkling record, but it needs some context: The Wildcats are 0-1 vs. Sagarin Top 50 teams and haven’t beaten any teams in the Top 100.
Honor roll: Senior guard Tre Demps (15.9 ppg); sophomore point guard Bryant McIntosh (14.8 ppg, 6.8 apg); senior center Alex Olah (12.8 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 2.0 bpg); freshman forward Aaron Falzon (9.0 ppg)
Math class: Thanks in large part to McIntosh, Northwestern leads the Big Ten with a 1.9 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Future prospects: The Wildcats have never been to the NCAA tournament, but coach Chris Collins has them knocking on the door. There’s still some major work to be done, and Northwestern could add a big boost to its resume early in Big Ten play with a game against visiting Maryland on Jan. 2.
OHIO STATE (8-5)
Mid-term grade: C-minus. The Buckeyes are 1-2 vs. Sagarin Top 50 teams with a neutral-site victory over Kentucky and home losses to Texas-Arlington and Louisiana Tech.
Honor roll: Junior forward Marc Loving (14.6 ppg); sophomore forward Keita Bates-Diop (12.1 ppg); sophomore forward Jae’Sean Tate (12.0 ppg, 6.9 rpg); freshman guard JaQuan Lyle (9.8 ppg).
Math class: Ohio State turns the ball over on 20.5 percent of its offensive possessions, according to the Pomeroy ratings. That ranks 275th nationally and second-to-last in Big Ten, ahead of only Nebraska.
Future prospects: The victory over Kentucky on Dec. 19 could be the confidence-booster this senior-less team needs heading into conference play. The Buckeyes defend well and are scrappy, but their lack of fundamentals on offense is a sign of their youth.
PENN STATE (9-4)
Mid-term grade: C-minus. The Nittany Lions are 0-1 against Sagarin Top 50 teams and have losses against Duquesne and Radford on their resume.
Honor roll: Senior forward Brandon Taylor (16.2 ppg, 6.2 rpg); sophomore guard Shep Garner (14.7 ppg); sophomore forward Payton Banks (11.7 ppg).
Math class: Penn State is shooting 41.3 percent from the field, which ranks last in the Big Ten.
Future prospects: The Nittany Lions have always been scrappy under coach Patrick Chambers, and that hasn’t changed this season. But Penn State is 16-56 in Big Ten play under Chambers and will continue to take more lumps in conference play this season.
NO. 14 PURDUE (12-1)
Mid-term grade: B-plus. The Boilermakers are 3-1 vs. Sagarin Top 50 teams, with the lone defeat coming against Butler in Indianapolis.
Honor roll: Senior center A.J. Hammons (13.3 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 2.9 bpg); sophomore center Isaac Haas (12.2 ppg, 5.4 rpg); freshman forward Caleb Swanigan (11.3 ppg, 9.2 rpg); senior guard Rapheal Davis (10.8 ppg); sophomore forward Vince Edwards (8.9 ppg, 5.0 rpg); sophomore point guard P.J. Thompson (5.3 assist-to-turnover ratio).
Math class: Opponents are shooting 33.9 percent from the field against Purdue, which is No. 1 in the Pomeroy adjusted defensive efficiency category.
Future prospects: Purdue is big, deep and hard to score against. It has all the tools necessary to make a run at its first Big Ten title since 2009-2010.
Mid-term grade: F. The Scarlet Knights were 0-1 vs. Sagarin Top 50 opponents and lost games by 29 (Seton Hall) and 34 points (George Washington) this month.
Honor roll: Freshman guard Corey Sanders (13.5 ppg); junior forward Deshawn Freeman (13.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg); sophomore guard Mike Williams (12.2 ppg); sophomore forward D.J. Foreman (8.1 ppg, 6.6 rpg)
Math class: Rutgers ranks 319th nationally in the Pomeroy adjusted offensive efficiency ratings. That’s the lowest of any team in a power six conference and 129 spots below the next-lowest team in the Big Ten.
Future prospects: Rutgers lost its final 15 games against Big Ten opponents after knocking off visiting UW last January. The Scarlet Knights are a near lock to finish at the bottom of the conference again this season.
Mid-term grade: D.
Honor roll: Junior forward Nigel Hayes (16.2 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 4.2 apg); junior point guard Bronson Koenig (14.4 ppg); redshirt freshman forward Ethan Happ (11.5 ppg, 8.3 rpg); junior forward Vitto Brown (10.4 ppg, 7.2 rpg).
Math class: One bright spot for the Badgers has been their ability to create second-chance opportunities. UW is 11th nationally in offensive rebounding percentage (39.8), according to the Pomeroy ratings.
Future prospects: Just when it appeared as if this team had turned the corner with victories at Syracuse and over Temple in the same week, it followed that up with back-to-back home losses to UW-Milwaukee and Marquette and an ugly home win over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. Perhaps interim coach Greg Gard will steady the ship, but he has a major task ahead of him to get the Badgers in the NCAA tournament.