It is officially the beginning of the new year which means it is time for college basketball teams to begin the tough final stretch of conference play. This is the time of the season where teams and players have to step up and play at their best as they get closer to conference tournaments and March Madness.
One very interesting team worth taking a deeper look into is the Wisconsin Badgers. As they head into their first games of 2022 they sit at No. 24 in the AP Top-25 with a 10-2 record overall, with their only losses coming against Providence and Ohio State.
They are 1-1 in Big Ten play which puts them in a six way tie for third in the conference. Their first conference game of the season came on Dec. 8 against Indiana where they came back from down 42-25 at half to win 64-59. Following that they went to Ohio State on Dec. 11 where they lost 73-55.
The Big Ten has been for years and is still one of the premier conferences in all of college basketball. The only Big Ten team with a losing record is Nebraska at 6-8. Outside of that, 10 teams have eight or more wins and six of those 10 have 10 or more wins. This means that conference play is going to be extremely intense and competitive.
Let’s take a look at some of the most crucial conference games for the Badgers in January.
Jan. 3: Purdue (12-1)
Wisconsin’s first game of 2022 will be on the road against the No. 3 ranked Purdue Boilermakers. This Purdue team has been incredibly special this season. After starting 8-0 they claimed the top spot in the AP Poll for the first time in school history.
Unfortunately, their first game as a number one team ended in a spectacular buzzer beater for Rutgers giving them a 70-68 win and their first win against a number one team in school history. Following that they narrowly beat NC State 82-72 in overtime. Since then though they have gotten back to their dominant ways and have improved to 12-1.
Purdue is led by the incredible talent of 7’ 4,” sophomore, Zach Edey. Edey leads the team in blocks per game (1.5), blocks (19), field goal percentage (72.8%), free throws made (44) and is second on the team in points (194), points per game (14.9), rebounds per game (7.3) and rebounds (95).
With Edey’s height he is incredibly scary on both sides of the ball. He can get easy buckets and blocks causing opponents constant frustration. If the Badgers can get the three pointers to fall they can lessen their worry of him on defense. Unfortunately, there is a serious lack of high to put on him while he has the ball on offense.
Purdue has been one of Wisconsin’s biggest problem teams over the years. Purdue has won seven of the last nine games dating back to Dec. 2015. Their previous matchup came last March at Purdue where the Boilermakers came away with the 73-69 victory. Four of the last five games have ended with a margin of victory of four points so expect a close finish.
Jan. 13: Ohio State (9-2)
This will be the second and final matchup between these two teams of the regular season and is poised to be a battle. One major difference is that Ohio State will have to face the Badgers in a packed Kohl Center. This will be a revenge game for the Badgers who look to prove themselves in this tough conference schedule.
OSU currently sits at No. 13 in the AP Top-25. Their two losses this season came against Xavier at 71-65 and No. 23 Florida at 71-68. Yet they redeemed themselves by taking down a top ranked Duke 71-66 and then won their first two conference games against Penn State and Wisconsin. They are playing extremely well and are more than ready to take on the Badgers again.
The player who contributed to much of the Badgers pain in their previous game and who has been one of the best players in the Big Ten is junior E.J. Liddell. He leads the team in minutes per game (30.5), points per game (19.6), points (216), rebounds per game (7.3), rebounds (80), blocks per game (3.0), and blocks (33).
Liddell is an absolute beast on the court, but unfortunately for OSU there is not a lot of depth outside of their star. This means good things for the Badgers because if they can contain Liddell their chances of getting the victory skyrocket.
Outside of keeping Liddell from dominating, the Wisconsin offense needs to do their job. It seemed like no matter how great of shots they put up nothing would fall. Outside of Johnny Davis who went 11-22 for 24 points the other four starters went a combined 7-30 for 21 points.
These are two extraordinarily tough teams and all that Badger fans can hope for is a close finish. As long at Wisconsin puts up a battle and keeps it close, whether it’s a win or a loss, it will be a true testament to how much the Badgers have grown since the early blow out.
Jan. 25: Nebraska (6-8)
Wisconsin will head to Nebraska for their first matchup of the season and their second to last game in January. Obviously the Badgers have much tougher opponents in January, but this is one of the most important games for multiple reasons.
Over the years Wisconsin has received scrutiny for not playing to their highest level against bad and mediocre teams. Maybe they focus on different upcoming games, maybe their opponents play better against them, maybe they get too comfortable. There can be a variety of reasons why this happens, but either way it is a problem area.
In December alone the Badgers had three games against average teams (Georgia Tech, Nicholls and Illinois State) and they only won by an average of 3.7 points.
Additionally, this game comes directly between two extremely tough matchups of Michigan State (12-2) and Minnesota (10-1). The MSU game will likely take a major toll on this team so it will be crucial for the Badgers to prove they can keep plowing through rather than just taking an extra long breather. Also, Minnesota is going to be a key home battle against one of their biggest rivals. Although it is important to keep this game in mind a big win at Nebraska will give them confidence as they roll into the final game of January.
This is one of the games that the Badgers have to win and by a large amount. Acting like they are playing a mediocre team means they will play like a mediocre team. They need to focus on one game at a time and get the necessary win because the rest of their opponents are going to cause them problems.
The Wisconsin Badgers have surprised plenty of people with their stellar play so far through season, but they are about to face their biggest test. The Big Ten is competitive as always and the Badgers have plenty of work ahead of them as they face off against some of their biggest rivals this January.
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