As I look forward to Northwestern at Wisconsin I've begun to wonder if Wisconsin basketball might serve as a possible model for success Northwestern basketball could follow. Though some may have forgotten, Wisconsin wasn’t always a basketball powerhouse. However, thanks to the work of Dick Bennett and Bo Ryan, the Badgers now regularly compete for the Big Ten Championship and the Final Four. Amazingly, though, Wisconsin seems to compete for these titles each year without the loads of top 100 recruits a team like Michigan State gets. As far as I can tell, Wisconsin’s success stems from three areas. First, Coach Bo Ryan generally seems to have one or two very good players he can count on for big numbers night in and night out. Second, those players are supported by a bunch of steady role players who can fit perfectly into the team’s system. These are guys who are great defenders, great rebounders, or great shooters, but are not skilled in all three areas. Finally, Wisconsin under Ryan seems to play with a winning attitude and intensity every night.
So, could Wisconsin be a model for Northwestern? Let’s look at how NU fits each of the three keys I’ve cited for Badger success. First, Northwestern does have some very good players. Kevin Coble and Craig Moore are generally reliable enough to score double digits each night. However, one or the other often seems to disappear at times during games. This is perhaps because defenses are so focused on these two players they can take one or the other out of the game. Wisconsin it seems doesn’t have this problem. Perhaps, that is because Wisconsin’s one or two top players have at times been NBAers, such as Devin Harris, that’s probably why they can complete for the Final Four. At this point, though, I don’t think NU should worry about competing for the Final Four. Besides, Wisconsin has won the Big Ten without super NBA talent. Also, to be realistic, at this point Final Fours and Big Ten Titles aren’t what NU needs to focus on. They ought to focus on finishing above .500 and making a tournament. I believe Coble and Moore have the talent to led NU to such a finish. However, if defenses are going to concentrate on them, they need to get some additional support.
Wisconsin’s ability to bring in key role players that provide support and take pressure off their stars has been extremely impressive. This year’s team has a great rebounder and defender in Joe Krabbenhoft and a great shooter in Jason Bohannon. Neither of these guys in an NBA player, but they play great supporting roles for star Marcus Landry. Past Badger teams have seen guys like Mike Kelley, Michael Flowers, and Greg Stiemsma who excelled in their roles of defense, scoring, or rebounding to support the team’s star. This might be the area where Northwestern needs the most improvement. I keep thinking Northwestern has these role players that will step up and support the team’s stars, but they are very inconsistent. Jeff Ryan, for example, could be a defensive specialist or top off the bench rebounder, but sometimes he lacks the necessary toughness. Luka Mirkovic was supposed to be a shooter, but right now he seems reluctant to take a three. He does look better around the hoop, though. Bottom line, NU needs its solid role players to consistently excel in their area of expertise.
Finally, Wisconsin is a team that absolutely brings attitude and intensity to the game every night. Think about how much Marcus Landry ticks off opposing fans. That’s not by accident. It’s because he’s an intense, physical player, who comes to the gym each night with an attitude that he’s going to do whatever it takes to beat his opponent. This guy is the best player on his team and takes this “do whatever it takes” attitude. When that happens, the other guys can’t help but take the same approach. Sadly, Northwestern doesn’t seem to have players like this. The closest might be Ivan Peljusic, but he doesn’t play enough to truly judge. Occasionally, you see this winning intensity for other Wildcats like Craig Moore and Michael Thompson, but it doesn’t show up every night. It existed against Michigan State, but wasn’t around at Penn State. That’s a shame, because if NU had brought a bit more intensity to State College I think they would have won.
The good news is if we want to use Wisconsin’s success as a model for NU it seems to me that NU has most of the physical pieces in place. However, the mental ones need some work. Kevin Coble and Craig Moore have the talent to lead NU an above .500 record and the post season, but they need help. NU’s role players have to show up every night and give their all to fill whatever role their coach asks of them. It might not be glorious, just be five minutes of great defense or intense rebounding, but those five minutes might be the key to victory. Also, all the players on NU’s roster from Moore and Coble to Marlon Day need to show up with a competitive intensity every night. Brining this intensity might not ensure wins, but it will ensure no bad losses which is an essential key to impressing selection committees and making the postseason.