Badgers eye Big Ten title as league play begins
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Why not Wisconsin?
Offensive lineman Joe Panos posed that question two decades ago, and UW went on to win a share of the Big Ten title and the upset UCLA in the Rose Bowl.
Two decades later, Frank Kaminsky is displaying the same swagger on the basketball court.
After No. 4 UW improved its record to 13-0 with an 80-43 victory over Prairie View A&M, Kaminsky was asked whether the players in November viewed a perfect run through their nonconference schedule as a realistic goal.
“Yes,” Kaminsky said. “Just like I expect us to win the Big Ten championship this year.”
UW finished tied for fourth place with Michigan at 12-6 last season, two games off the pace set by Indiana. The Badgers then dispatched Michigan and Indiana to reach the Big Ten tournament title game but fell to Ohio State.
Nevertheless, those are strong words when you consider UW, which opens league play at 6 p.m. Thursday at Northwestern (7-6), hasn't won a regular-season or tournament title since 2008.
“That's an expectation,” Kaminsky added. “I think if you talk to anyone in our locker room, they'll say the same thing.”
UW (13-0) was the No. 4 pick in a preseason poll of 24 Big Ten writers, behind Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State.
The Spartans (11-1) were the preseason favorite. They are one just spot behind UW at No. 5 in The Associated Press poll, but one spot ahead of UW at No. 4 in the USA Today poll despite having to battle through injury issues so far this season.
Tom Izzo returns three second-team, all-Big Ten picks from last season in guards Keith Appling and Gary Harris and forward Adreian Payne and has probably the second-deepest team in the league.
“I keep saying, I don't know if I've had my full team,” Izzo said after the Spartans closed their nonconference schedule with a 101-48 victory over New Orleans. “I like the direction we're heading. I just need more consistency.”
Michigan, which reached the national title game last season, might struggle to finish in the top four of the league this season.
The Wolverines (8-4) haven't adequately replaced guard Trey Burke and forward Tim Hardaway Jr., who departed for the NBA after last season. They recently lost center Mitch McGary, who blossomed in the NCAA Tournament last season, to back surgery that could end his season.
“One of the options we wanted this year was to play through him more,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “And all of a sudden, the injury comes and now you can't do that.”
Three of the Wolverines' losses have come against No. 1 Arizona, No. 7 Duke and No. 13 Iowa State. However, without Burke, Hardaway and McGary the Wolverines are a shell of the team that fell to Louisville in the national title game last season.
Third-ranked Ohio State is 13-0 for the fifth time in program history because it can defend better than any other team in the league.
With guards Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott setting the defensive tone, the Buckeyes are limiting teams to 54.0 points per game, 24.3 percent shooting from three-point range and 36.4 percent shooting overall. Those were the No. 1 marks in the Big Ten entering the week.
“I think we have to be as good as we can every night defensively,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said after the Buckeyes routed Louisiana-Monroe, 71-31. “Continuing to build our offensive execution is key.”
Michigan State, Ohio State and UW should battle for the regular-season title, but don't sleep on No. 22 Iowa (11-2), which visits UW at 6:30 p.m. Sunday.
Fran McCaffery has the deepest team in the league with four players scoring in double figures and seven other players averaging between 4.8 and 8.2 points. The Hawkeyes have the No. 1 scoring margin in the league at +23.2 points.
One advantage for the Badgers, who have four starters scoring in double figures, is the schedule. UW faces Michigan State and Ohio State just once, and both games are in Madison.
“We're very happy with what we've been able to accomplish thus far,” sophomore forward Sam Dekker said. “We're proud of that, but we've got a lot of work to do.”