Monday, December 14, 2015

Thoughts on Badgers' schedule and tourney hopes

After two more home losses to Milwaukee and Marquette, the Badgers are now 6-5. They've fallen to 60th in the T-Rank and 42nd in Kenpom (where they are still somewhat buoyed by their implausibly high preseason rating of 9th in the country).

T-Rank currently projects the Badgers to finish the season 15-16 and go 7-11 in the Big Ten.

Kenpom currently projects 17-14 and 9-9.

I'm hopeful that the Kenpom projection is more realistic. Although UW is now playing with a very tight rotation the features four juniors, redshirt freshman Happ, and spot duty from three freshman (Thomas, Iverson, and occasionally Illikainen), it's still reasonable to expect that the four freshman in the rotation could significantly improve as the season goes on. I do think we've seen the worst of this team, and I hope we haven't seen the best of it.

Even so, the Badgers will face a tough test in the Big Ten schedule, as almost all their double-plays are against the top teams in the conference: Michigan St., Maryland, Purdue, Indiana, and Illinois. This is why T-Rank projects them to have the second-toughest conference schedule.

But their single-plays are looking better. In the single-play games, you want to play the tougher teams at home, and the easier teams on the road. Overall, I think the Badgers got a bit lucky on the locations of their single play games:

Rutgers, home: would prefer this on the road. Minus.
Northwestern, away: tough to tell, but for now this looks like a preferred home game. Minus.
Penn St., away: a very winnable road game. Plus.
Ohio St., home: a game they should win, but would be tough on the road. Plus.
Nebraska, home: Nebraska looks tough at home, bad on the road. Plus.
Iowa, away: Minus
Michigan, home: Plus.
Minnesota, away: given how terrible MN has looked: Plus.

So, +2 overall. Only the Minnesota and Northwestern games are really questionable calls, so maybe call them both pushes and they're still +2.

In any event, only one of those games would be a shocking win (at Iowa). Anything less than 5-3 would be disappointing, and 6-2 seems doable.

In a normal year, you'd look at that and say the Badgers can count on splitting the double plays, so 10 or 11 wins and -- given that the Badgers will have a top-10ish RPI SOS -- an at-large berth are likely. This year I'm not so sure. This year home wins over Purdue, Michigan St., or Maryland seem like steals. So it's going to be interesting.

How interesting? I think it's likely that the Badgers' season will come down to their first game in the Big Ten tournament. Let's take a mildly optimistic but still reasonable scenario and run it through the RPI Wizard at

Wins: Rutgers, @NW, @PSU, IU, @IL, OSU, Neb., IL, Mich., @MN
Losses: Purdue x 2, Michigan St. x 2, Maryland x 2, @IU, @Iowa
Total: 10-8
BTT: Beat Northwestern, lose to Michigan St.
Result: RPI 41, SOS 5

That scenario would put the Badgers right on the bubble. On the downside, they'd have no really good wins in conference -- only IU and Michigan would probably be tournament teams, possibly Northwestern (though NW probably has to beat Wisconsin to be in contention). And they'd be carrying the baggage of at least one (Western), probably two (Milwaukee), and maybe three (Marquette) "bad losses." Still, a > .500 conference record, a decent RPI, an elite SOS, and two decent non-con wins would probably be enough to at least get the Badgers into the field of 68 (if not the field of 64) -- though they'd probably be in better position if they traded the win at Northwestern for a more "marquee" win over Michigan St., Purdue, or Maryland.

Now run those same numbers, but with a BTT loss to Northwestern:

Result: RPI 55, SOS 9

That RPI would probably be insurmountable, unfortunately.

Of course, the chances of either of these particular scenarios playing out exactly this way is vanishingly small. It's more likely the Badgers will lose a couple here, gain a couple there. But since this is probably worst resume the Badgers could have with 10 wins, it's worth considering. And even in alternate 10-win scenarios, that first BTT game is likely to be a must-win or close to it.

One way or another, I think the Badgers will have to scratch out 11 wins against Big Ten teams to get into the tournament. I think they can do it. I think they will do it. But there's really no margin for error anymore.

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