Wisconsin mailbag: Will strength of schedule impact playoff chase, projecting hoops starters, why Purdue poses a threat this week

Have Wisconsin football, basketball or recruiting questions? We’ve got answers. Join us every Wednesday for the  Land of 10 Wisconsin mailbag to talk all things Badgers. This week, we discuss whether the Badgers’ easier schedule will have an impact in the national rankings, attempt to project the basketball team’s starters, break down quarterback Alex Hornibrook’s play in Big Ten games, address injuries to the left side of Wisconsin’s offensive line and break down why Purdue could pose a threat on Saturday.

Question 1

Answer: This has been a topic of conversation since before the season even began. Some Badgers fans have wondered and worried whether Wisconsin’s lack of nationally-ranked opponents on the schedule might impact the team’s own ranking and ability to compete for a College Football Playoff spot. But as long as Wisconsin keeps winning, the schedule should have little, if any, bearing on the Badgers’ march up the rankings.

Case in point: Wisconsin defeated a Nebraska team on Saturday that is now .500 this season. But the Badgers moved up two spots in the Associated Press Top 25 poll from No. 9 to No. 7 and two spots in the coaches poll from No. 8 to No. 6 because of losses by Oklahoma and Michigan. Wisconsin’s strength of schedule might suffer in the next four weeks with Big Ten games against Purdue, Maryland, Illinois and Indiana. However, if Wisconsin beats Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota to close the regular season, the team will be 12-0. Wisconsin likely will have to win the league championship game to earn a playoff bid, and that game presumably will come against a top-10 team.

Earlier this season, Wisconsin dropped one spot in successive weeks in the coaches poll, from 10 to 11 to 12 after a couple performances that weren’t entirely dominant. But as the number of unbeaten teams dwindle around Wisconsin in the coming weeks, the Badgers should be right where they want to be.

Question 2

Answer: Wisconsin’s first exhibition game doesn’t come until Nov. 5 against UW-Stout, and I’ve only had an opportunity to watch this team for about 45 minutes during a practice in early August. The team’s local media day is Friday, so reporters will be able to watch part of practice as well. The last time I covered the Badgers basketball team came in 2014-15 during that magical run to the national championship, which somehow feels like even longer ago than it is.

I point that out to say that I have seen very little of most of the guys on the current team, and I’ll know far more next month. At this point, I see four players who are likely to fill starting roles, at least to open the season: point guard D’Mitrik Trice, guard Brevin Pritzl, guard/forward Khalil Iverson and forward Ethan Happ. Happ is the player with the most experience, and he led the Badgers last season in rebounding, assists, blocks and steals, and was tied for second in scoring. It was simply an incredible season for him. But he’ll need help if this team wants to continue its streak of 17 straight top-four Big Ten finishes.

Trice will have to take one of the biggest steps forward on the team as he replaces Bronson Koenig at point guard. His quickness, passing ability and outside shooting stroke make him difficult to handle. Pritzl is a much better 3-point shooter than he showed last season, and we saw glimpses of his skill during Wisconsin’s five-game exhibition tour of Australia and New Zealand. I do wonder if freshman guard Brad Davison might work his way into the starting lineup at some point. He has some of that Josh Gasser-Zak Showalter toughness, and he can score. I’m guessing Kobe King will be a major contributor off the bench rather than as a starter, but I could be proven wrong. With only one returning starter, so much playing time is up for grabs.

Iverson has now played in 69 career games at Wisconsin and figures to move into the starting lineup this season. He ranked seventh on the team in minutes per game last season (15.3), but four of the players who played more minutes are gone. If Trice, Pritzl, Iverson and Happ are starters, that may leave Wisconsin in need of a bigger body on the court. Perhaps 7-foot forward Andy Van Vliet fills that role, although he needs to improve his defense. Alex Illikainen is another frontcourt player to watch. The Badgers have a group of forwards vying for time, and coach Greg Gard must figure out who gives the team the best chance to win.

The most exciting part about the 2017-18 team is how little we actually know about the group. It will be fun to watch how it all unfolds.

Question 3

Answer: I wrote about Jazz Peavy last week, and you can read more there about what has transpired this season. But there seem to be a couple of reasons to explain Peavy’s production decline. For starters, he is surrounded by a much better group of wide receivers. Sophomore Quintez Cephus has clearly established himself as the team’s No. 1 receiver and leads Wisconsin in receiving yards (301) and touchdown catches (4). With receivers A.J. Taylor, Danny Davis and tight end Troy Fumagalli, that’s a lot of options in the passing game outside of Peavy.

Entering the game last Saturday against Nebraska, Badgers quarterback Alex Hornibrook had targeted Peavy on only 9 of his 90 passing attempts, which ranked tied for fourth on the team. Peavy has 5 catches for 55 yards, which is as many receptions as third-down running back Chris James. Another component to those numbers appears to be how opposing defenses are playing Peavy. Because he was one of the team’s best receivers last season, there has been more of an emphasis on stopping him. That decision has freed up others.

It’s clear at this point that Peavy’s statistics aren’t going to match the success he experienced as a junior. But there are still seven regular season games remaining, and Peavy will have plenty of opportunities to make an impact.

Question 4

Answer: I don’t know that Hornibrook will become a so-called “elite” quarterback during his time at Wisconsin. The Badgers have really only had one quarterback in recent history that falls into that category: Russell Wilson in 2011. But Hornibrook doesn’t have to be one of the five best quarterbacks in college football to help Wisconsin achieve its goal of reaching the College Football Playoff.

Instead, Hornibrook must play to his strengths and find more consistency in the passing game. He has not been at his best since Big Ten play began. In two games against Northwestern and Nebraska, he has completed 20 of 37 passes for 310 yards with 2 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. Hornibrook appears to struggle with footwork when under pressure, and his success largely will be based on short and intermediate throws as opposed to deep home-run balls.

Wisconsin’s ability to effectively run the ball against Nebraska was an encouraging sign. On the Badgers’ final two scoring drives, they ran on all 20 offensive plays. Hornibrook showed against BYU that he is capable of being a special player. But he must continue to develop as a passer to keep defenses honest against the run.

Question 5

Answer: Jason Erdmann filled in for Jon Dietzen at left guard instead of Micah Kapoi because coaches believed he would be the most effective player. Kapoi has been banged up and is listed as questionable for the game this week against Purdue with a right arm injury.

As for the injury status of Dietzen and left tackle Michael Deiter, I do think this is something that will linger for some time. Dietzen underwent offseason surgery on his right ankle and hasn’t been healthy enough to play full-time even in fall camp. Deiter also has been battling a right ankle injury and briefly exited the game against Nebraska so trainers could heavily tape the ankle. Cole Van Lanen filled in for Deiter before he returned.

The only thing that can heal an ankle injury is time off. But that’s not really possible as Wisconsin enters the heart of Big Ten play. Both Dietzen and Deiter have toughed it out so far, and they aren’t likely to stay off the field if they can help it. At least Wisconsin has quality reserves with Van Lanen and Erdmann if something does happen.

Question 6

Answer: Wisconsin will be heavily favored in its next four games against Purdue, Maryland, Illinois and Indiana. And even though the Boilermakers have lost 11 consecutive games in the series, I agree with you that they could be the team in that group to challenge Wisconsin the most.

Purdue played Louisville close in its season opener, dominated Missouri on the road, put a scare into Michigan and knocked off Minnesota last week. Purdue already has three wins this season under first-year coach Jeff Brohm, which is notable because the Boilermakers haven’t won more than three games in a season since 2012. They also were 3-30 in the Big Ten from 2013-16.

Purdue’s defensive improvement is one of the biggest reasons for the team’s turnaround. Last season, the Boilermakers allowed 38.3 points per game. Through five games this season, the defense is allowing 20.8 points per game. Plus, Purdue’s two-quarterback system of David Blough and Elijah Sindelar has worked quite well. They have combined for 1,302 yards passing with 13 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. Blough threw 21 interceptions last season, so he’s taken significant steps forward.

Will it be enough for Purdue to secure a major upset against Wisconsin at Camp Randall on Saturday? I don’t think so. But stranger things have happened in college football. Just ask Oklahoma, which lost to Iowa State last week despite being a 31-point favorite. That’s what makes the sport so great.

Have a question about Wisconsin football or basketball? Tweet us @Landof10Badgers and we’ll try to answer your question in a future mailbag. Check to see if your question already was answered by reading previous Wisconsin mailbags  here .

The post Wisconsin mailbag: Will strength of schedule impact playoff chase, projecting hoops starters, why Purdue poses a threat this week appeared first on Land of 10.

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