The University of Wisconsin's women's basketball team has definitely seen better days. The once-proud program--ranked in the top 5 of the nation as recently as last season--has suffered through a 2-9 mark this season, including 0-1 in the Big Ten. The two wins came against North Texas-Arlington and Eastern Illinois, while the Badgers have gone down in defeat to Penn State, Marquette, UW-Green Bay, Drake, Washington, Ball State, Pepperdine, Northern Illinois, and San Francisco. The schedule doesn't get any easier as the Badgers will have to defend their homecourt against the #6 ranked team in the nation on Thursday, hit the road for the first time in conference play against a surprising Illinois squad, then return home to face resurgent Ohio State.
The Badgers have always been a strong team in the frontcourt and this year is no exception as three players taller than 6'3" start for Wisconsin: Emily Ashbaugh and sisters Lello and Ebba Gebisa, formerly of West Lafayette High School. The Badgers have used their size to their advantage this year as they average almost 5 blocks per game, with Lello Gebisa, Ashbaugh, and guard Stephanie Rich being the chief swatters. Rich also has the distinction of being the team's leading scorer at 10.3 points per game and its leading thief with a total of 25 through the 11 games.
Where Rich has had difficulty this year is shooting the basketball, as she's hit less than 30% of her field goals, less than 65% of her free throws, and only 33% of her 3-point attempts. Rich isn't alone in her shooting woes, however, as Wisconsin has struggled with its shooting efficiency: only 42.2% from the field. However, the Badgers have been knocking down both free throws and 3-point shots with regularity: almost 75% from the line and over 40% from the arc. If the Badgers are hot from those two places, why is this team struggling? Here's a few areas:
1) 3-pt FG defense. While Wisconsin's opponents shoot a lower percentage from beyond the arc than the Badgers, the opponents are averaging 17 3-point shots per game to the Badgers' nine. With those eight extra attempts per game, and shooting at 39% against the Badgers, opponents have outscored Wisconsin from the arc by a score of 219-117.
2) Turnovers. Wisconsin averages more than 22 turnovers per game while forcing their opponents into less than 17. Shooting such a low percentage from the floor would be easier to swallow if the team got enough shots at the basket to begin with. Opponents, however, have had 4 more field goal opportunities per game than the Badgers. There's bound to be problems when a team's only assist:turnover ratio above 1 comes from a frontcourt player, as Emily Ashbaugh leads the Badgers at 1.2.
3) A very tough schedule combined with little experience on the roster. Wisconsin-Green Bay is a legitimate top-25 team, while Washington returns much of a squad that went to the Elite 8 two years ago. Drake may be the most consistent program in the Missouri Valley Conference (even moreso than Southwest Missouri State), and everyone knows that Penn State is a proven power in the Big 10. Throw in very solid opponents in Marquette, San Francisco, and Ball State and this Badger team has had a potent schedule to contend with, while having few players with much collegiate experience as starters. The graduation losses of all-everything Tamara Moore and Jessie Stomski took its toll on Wisconsin's toughness and the Badgers start a freshman, two sophomores, a junior, and a transfer who hasn't played college ball in over a year. Add that the expected starting point guard Candas Smith didn't qualify academically and there's bound to be some disorientation.
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Ashley Josephson wasn't the most heralded recruit to land in the Big Ten conference this year, despite being named an AAU All-American two consecutive years in basketball and being a good enough athlete compete in varsity soccer and as the #1 player on the boys' tennis squad for a year. Despite the lack of publicity before the 2002-2003 season the Onalaska, WI, native has been one of the Badgers' bright spots offensively, shooting 50% from 3-point range and more than 90% from the FT line. While she does have more turnovers than assists, she's not the only Badger with that issue--all but two Badger players can claim that statistics. What's key about Josephson's season is that she's accomplishing all that she's accomplishing (9.7 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 1.5 apg) without the benefit of an experienced backcourt mate: Katie Douglas learned from Ukari Figgs and Stepanie White-McCarty, Kelly Komara learned from all three, and Erika Valek learned a lot last year from Komara. Josephson will see as much action on the floor as any Wisconsin player and with the tall frontcourt needing a boost from the backcourt, she may be the key to the game.
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The game Thursday in the Kohl Center will likely decide one of the two teams' Big Ten regular season outcome: teams rarely come back from 0-2 starts to win championships in a 16-game schedule. Expect there to be a boisterous home crowd rooting for the Badgers as an average of over 6000 fans show up to cheer the Badgers at the Kohl Center. The Badgers will be angry after a drubbing in the opening Big Ten game against Penn State while the Boilermakers have had the opportunity to put an upsetting loss at Michigan State into the "learn and grow from the experience" file. Wisconsin is by far the taller of the two teams and may try to use that advantage by forcing the ball into the Gebisas and Ashbaugh against Shereka, Mary Jo, Lindsey, and the reserves. Purdue's backcourt is the more dominant of the two as Erika Valek may be the most experienced collegiate player on the floor and Beth Jones has been a steady performer throughout the season. If the Boilermaker backcourt can stifle the Badger players and force turnovers into fast breaks, the Badgers' height advantage will be negated.
Keys to the game:
1) The Wisconsin crowd. One of the most supportive in the Big Ten and boisterous. If the Boilermakers can dash away from the Badgers early and keep the crowd from being raucous, it may stifle Wisconsin's energy.
2) The play of the backcourt. Erika, Beth, and Sharika Webb must outplay their inexperienced counterparts in the red and white. While height isn't everything in basketball, the Badgers are big enough to give the Boiler frontcourt fits--keeping entry passes from the blocks will be a key to stopping those fits.
3) The bench play. Wisconsin isn't a partcularly deep team. Purdue's bench, aside from Emily Heikes, isn't particularly aggressive. If one side significantly outperforms the other, look out.
4) Coaching. Two teams are mad and two coaches frustrated as Big Ten play opens. Which one will get her charges to focus at the task at hand, stay aggressive despite being outmanned in certain areas, and be able to stifle the other's strengths?
Wisconsin is a proud program that has fallen on tough times: Coach Albright is on the hot seat, inexperienced players are expected to step up due to unexpected player loss (Candas Smith, all-everything center Nina Smith), and the schedule has decidedly been against the Badgers. Look for the Badgers to be a solid Big Ten team next year as experience and familiarity will be gained by this year's team. Add to that a strong, supportive crowd and Wisconsin should be able to shake off these past few years' woes with a strong promise for the future. This game, however, is something different as Purdue should pull out a victory.