If it seems like men's college basketball has been turned upside-down this season, the confirmation came last week when Duke, North Carolina and Kentucky went unranked in the Associated Press top 25.
This COVID-affected season has been strange from the start and nothing illustrates that more than the early struggles of the programs that recruit exclusively off the "A" list and dominate the top 10 year in and year out. The last time those three bluebloods missed the poll in the same week was 1961.
Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina have a combined record of 29-19. Together, Duke and Kentucky are 10-14, if you can imagine that. Throw in Kansas, which was ranked eighth last week but has lost three consecutive games for the first time in eight years, and there is a power vacuum at the top in college hoops.
There is an obvious reason for that. Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina are all young, which is not unusual for them. The difference this year is that the pandemic bit heavily into teams' preparation time prior to the season and limited the number of non-conference games in which they could get their act together. Their freshmen are playing like freshmen for a change.
The flip side is that the issues created by the pandemic have given veteran teams a sizable advantage. Experienced teams such as Gonzaga, Baylor and Villanova are off to flying starts.
What this means for the University of Wisconsin is simple. UW's vast experience and the sudden shortage of great teams around the country has presented the Badgers with a rare opportunity this season.
With five senior starters returning from a team that shared the Big Ten Conference title and with only Gonzaga possessing the kind of talent that frightens opponents, this is a season where the Badgers could think realistically about making another NCAA Final Four run. The timing seems right for a tournament breakthrough. Before the circumstances of this weird season can help UW, however, UW has to start helping itself.
When 10th-ranked UW never led in a 74-62 loss to 15th-ranked Ohio State Saturday at the Kohl Center, it dropped their record to 12-4 overall and 6-3 in the Big Ten. More than anything, though, it highlighted the inconsistency that has plagued the Badgers all season.
That up-and-down play has shown up on offense, on defense, in the execution and in the effort. There are times UW looks like the team we all thought it could be two months ago. There are other times when it looks like a team that is pressing to live up to expectations.
Against Ohio State, UW shot 40.4% from the field, including a horrific 7-for-28 from the 3-point line. Meanwhile, the Badgers defense allowed the Buckeyes to hover just over 50% the entire game. And when UW twice cut Ohio State's game-long lead to four points late in the game, UW's execution was lacking.
If not for their grit, the Badgers wouldn't still be in third place and in contention in the Big Ten. They were coming off wins over Rutgers and Northwestern and looked like they might be primed for a run in the second half of the Big Ten season, but their failure to string together positive plays on either end of the court led to a frustrating defeat.
On offense, the Badgers kept shooting 3-point shots, even when they didn't go in. Coach Greg Gard said the 3s were almost all good looks, so UW had to take them. He insisted UW's defense was the real culprit as it let the Buckeyes get comfortable early and couldn't cool them down.
"I don't think we were at the same level today as we had been the last couple of games," Gard said. "This group, when they're at their best they're focused on the defensive end and let the offense come to them, not the other way around. When we get focused on the other way around, we're not as good as we can be. Our best has always been when we're locked in defensively."
Still, finding consistent offense has been a real struggle since the Big Ten season began. In nine Big Ten games, UW is shooting a mere 41.9% compared to its opponents' 43.3%. The Badgers haven't cracked 43.6% in any of their last five games.
"I'd say (we're) settling (for 3s) early in the game," forward Aleem Ford said. "The games where we do shoot well on the perimeter is when we pound it inside early and often and get to the free throw line and play inside-out. The games where we struggle we settle for those 3s early. We just needed to do a better job of pounding it inside."
To date, UW's offense has functioned well only in spurts. The Badgers have to even things out soon because it's too hard to win consistently in the Big Ten when shooting low percentages, especially when the defense also plays sporadically.
"One of the things we really want to get going on this team is winning three games in a row (in the Big Ten)," forward Nate Reuvers said. "We've won two and then we've lost at various times this season. We want to get three in a row going and get on a win streak. Obviously, it's frustrating when you put two games together and then you don't play as well as you have been on that next one. We've got to find a way to get rolling here as we head down the stretch if we want to accomplish some of the goals we set for this season."