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Jim Polzin: Why excited Wisconsin men's basketball fans should tap the brakes for now

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As the parent of a teenager who recently turned 16, I find myself applying the foot brake from my passenger seat a lot these days.

So what I’m about to ask of University of Wisconsin men’s basketball fans feels almost natural: Please slow down.

I’ll admit that even I’ve had a hard time managing my expectations for the Badgers after their surprisingly smooth start. I’ve shifted from pump-the-brakes to tap-on-the-brakes mode over the course of a week, thinking there might be a letdown after the Maui Invitational championship and then watching UW win a road game at Georgia Tech and handle Marquette three days later.

Greg Gard’s team is now 7-1 and ranked No. 22 in the country, up a spot from last week. UW is No. 18 in the NET rankings used to choose and seed the NCAA tournament field.

The Badgers are unbeaten with Johnny Davis in the lineup and I asked the sophomore guard after an 89-76 victory over the Golden Eagles on Saturday if there was anything that surprised him about the way UW has started the season.

“Ain’t nothing surprising about this,” said Davis, who finished with a game-high 25 points. “Every time we step on the floor, we expect to win.”

Davis and the Badgers are full of confidence and that’s great. They play hard, are fun to watch — at least most of the time — and should only get better as the season progresses because the roster is filled with youth.

I’ve seen chatter from some fans about UW being a potential second-weekend team in the NCAA tournament and others making fun of a preseason poll in which the Badgers were picked to finish 10th in the Big Ten.

Here comes my foot brake because, as smooth as the ride has been so far, the Big Ten is sure to be filled with potholes and I’m curious to see how the Badgers are able to navigate that tricky ride.

That trip begins on Wednesday night against Indiana (7-1, 1-0 Big Ten) at the Kohl Center and continues Saturday at Ohio State (6-2, 1-0). Both of those teams were picked to finish ahead of UW, so this week should provide a good gauge of whether there’s a need for the team’s outlook to be calibrated.

There were enough question marks with this team that I didn’t flinch two months ago when fellow media members from around the conference picked UW to finish so low. Some of those concerns still exist, which is why my advice is to proceed with caution.

While the Badgers have been better offensively than I thought they’d be, Big Ten defenses likely will make scoring more difficult for them. There are three Big Ten teams in the top 15 of the KenPom adjusted defensive efficiency ratings, including Indiana, and scouting reports will be more thorough than the ones opposing coaches had a chance to compile for quick turnarounds in the Las Vegas tournament, for example. (Of course, the same can be said for UW’s own scouting reports.)

Davis will be No. 1 on those scouting reports and both he — and UW as a whole — will need to find counters to avoid getting bogged down on offense. One notable thing through the first eight games: While the Badgers have encountered droughts at times, they’ve also shown the ability to score in spurts to make up for those slumps.

Outside shooting remains a concern of mine. UW is shooting 31.7% from 3-point range, with only Davis (40.7) and Lorne Bowman (53.3) above 34% among the rotation players.

Another potential issue is post defense. We’ve seen both sophomore center Steven Crowl and senior backup Chris Vogt get in foul trouble — sometimes in the same half — and those two will face several tall tests in a conference that includes Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn, Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson and the Purdue tandem of Zach Edey and Trevion Williams. Ohio State’s E.J. Liddell and Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis aren’t centers, per se, but they’ll present a different set of challenges for UW big men.

Finally, the quality of the Badgers’ depth remains a bit of an unknown. It’s clear the starting five of Davis, Crowl, guard Brad Davison, point guard Chucky Hepburn and forward Tyler Wahl is solid, but the reserves have been inconsistent and Gard is still trying to figure out a rotation that works best.

None of that is necessarily surprising. Again, this team is young and the makeup of the bench is a combination of transfers and players who either have barely or never played prior to this season.

The Big Ten preseason media poll went like this: Michigan, Purdue, Illinois, Ohio State, Maryland, Michigan State, Indiana, Rutgers, Iowa, UW, Nebraska, Northwestern and Penn State (tied), and Minnesota at the bottom.

A month into the season, Purdue now seems like the overwhelming favorite to win the conference and deserves to be in its own tier. Illinois, in my opinion, leads a congested second tier that includes (in alphabetical order) Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and UW. Below that is a group of six teams who either have built good records against poor competition (I’m looking at you, Northwestern and Minnesota) or are going through massive growing pains.

Where exactly the Badgers fit in the mix remains to be seen. My view through the windshield is less scary than it was a month ago, but I’d still urge you to avoid looking too far down the road. No need to slam on the brakes, but a little tap would probably be wise.

My son is rolling his eyes as I read this to him, and he’s got a point: He’s surpassed my expectations as a driver to date, and maybe UW will do the same on its own journey.

Contact Jim Polzin at jpolzin@madison.com.

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