(left) helped the resurgent Badgers
take down yet another Big Ten opponent. (Justin Hayworth/AP)
The Big Ten has been impossible to figure out all season. At one point or another, the top five teams in the conference -- Michigan State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa and Ohio State -- all looked like the best team in what is the top-ranked conference on kenpom.com. While they may not win the Big Ten regular-season championship, the Badgers are once again pushing themselves to the top of the conference with just two weeks remaining before tournament time.
Wisconsin led for most of the way at Iowa on Sunday, then rallied from a four-point deficit to pull out a 79-74 win. Frank Kaminsky led the Badgers with 21 points and seven rebounds. Sam Dekker had 15 and 11, while Josh Gasser knocked in four shots from behind the arc, including two with the Badgers trailing and less than four minutes left in the game.
The victory was Wisconsin's fifth straight, a run that also includes a road win at Michigan and a home win over Michigan State. Only the Badgers and Wolverines have defeated the other four ranked teams in the conference, but it's the former that might have the better tournament resume. Wisconsin is now 8-3 against teams in the top 50 of the RPI. It's beaten Iowa, Michigan and Virginia on the road, Florida, albeit an undermanned Gators squad, at home, and Saint Louis on a neutral court. The Badgers also boast neutral-court victories against bubble teams St. John's and West Virginia, and beat likely Horizon League champion UW-Green Bay in Aaron Rodgers' stomping grounds.
Put simply, the Badgers have done everything the selection committee looks for out of a high seed. They have four wins over top-20 RPI teams. They've won seven games on the road, including five in the Big Ten, and three on neutral courts. Their seven wins over teams that are considered locks to make the NCAA Tournament are the most in the conference. And after a mid-season swoon in which they lost five of six games, they've gotten back to playing the brand of efficient offense that once had them ranked No. 3 in the country. They've scored at least 75 points in four of the five games on their current winning streak, shooting 46.8 percent from the floor and 39.2 percent from three. Their last four regular season games are against Indiana, Penn State, Purdue and Nebraska. KenPom only gives them a 36 percent chance to win all four games, but they'll no doubt be favored in each of them. Should they win all four, they'd be 26-5 overall and 13-5 in arguably the best conference in the country, with eight top-50 RPI wins. That sounds like a 2-seed in March.
Meanwhile, in what has become a theme this year, Iowa let another golden opportunity slip away. The Hawkeyes rallied from a nine-point halftime deficit to eventually take a four-point lead with with 5:48 left in the game. Wisconsin often appeared to have no answer for Josh Oglesby, who scored 17 points on 8-of-12 shooting in 24 minutes. It was curious, then, that Oglesby didn't get a touch on Iowa's final two meaningful possessions of the game, when they trailed by one and three points, respectively, with less than a minute on the clock. On the first one, Roy Devyn Marble -- who had a team-high 21 points but needed 19 shots to get there -- turned it over after being stripped by Kaminsky. On the next, Zach McCabe airballed a wide-open three from the top of the key.
Iowa supporters often point to the fact that the Hawkeyes haven't lost a game this year to a team outside the top 20 in RPI. While that's certainly impressive, it would be encouraging to see the Hawkeyes actually beat a few of those teams, as well. Just two of their 19 wins are against top-20 squads, and just six are over teams in the top 100. They have one game against such a team remaining in the regular season. That matchup takes place on March 6, when they travel to East Lansing to take on Michigan State. Iowa is now just a half-game ahead of Ohio State for fourth place, and the final first-round bye in the conference tournament, in the Big Ten. While they wouldn't be at much risk to lose to the 12-seed in the conference tournament, each extra game would make it more challenging to make the deep run the Hawkeyes might need to improve their seeding for the NCAAs.