EAST LANSING, MI - FEBRUARY  18:  Ethan Happ #22 of the Wisconsin Badgers handles the ball under pressure from Gavin Schilling #34 of the Michigan State Spartans in the first half at the Breslin Center on February 18, 2016 in East Lansing, Michigan. (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)

Recent struggles show cracks in Badgers NCAA tourney hopes

As hot as the Wisconsin Badgers men’s basketball team was to end the Big Ten regular season, things are cooled off considerably at the worst possible time. Finishing the regular season with 11 wins in 13 games was certainly something to write home about.

However, one of those two losses came in the regular season finale at Purdue and with UW’s shocking one-and-done exit in the Big Ten tournament at the hands of Nebraksa, the Badgers are staring a two-game losing streak in the face.

There’s a school of thought that getting the clunkers out of the way before the NCAA tournament is helpful. No doubt there is something to be said for that, but there’s also a problem with that theory in practice for this version of the Badgers.

Having one clunker is one thing…getting worked in back-to-back games in two different fashions indicates something much more troublesome.

Not only are the Badgers struggling from the field as of late, shooting a combined 37.1 percent in the last two games, but they are also getting outworked on the other end of the court as well.

Purdue and Nebraska combined to shoot 54.2 percent from the field against Wisconsin. This from a defense that ranked seventh in Big Ten play, allowing teams to shoot just 43.5 percent from the field.

No stat may be scarier to UW’s NCAA tourney hopes than this one — Wisconsin lost the battle on the boards to Nebraska 38-35 and 36-26 at Purdue. That’s a -13 rebounding margin over the last two games for a team that can’t afford to be outworked on the boards.

Individually we’ve seen the dynamic junior duo of Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig fail to play in tandem. Against Purdue it was Hayes pouring in 30 points, while adding 10 (6 from the free throw line) in the loss to Nebraska in the Big Ten tournament. Koenig has just 19 combined points in the two games.

Sure, getting Ethan Happ and Vitto Brown going is helpful but those two can’t win games by themselves. Getting Hayes and Koenig to work in concert with each other will be key to any hopes of Wisconsin turning it around.

Puzzling performances in the last two games have many fans, pundits and certainly the coaches and players searching for answers. Some have begun to suggest a team that is simply gassed, while others (joking and serious) believe the circus around, and timing of, Greg Gard getting the permanent head coaching job are to blame too.

The search for answers have clearly led to wild theories and suggestions, but there may be one simple answer to what is happening to UW as of late — youth.

Wisconsin is relying on three freshmen and a previously little-used sophomore to provide big time minutes off the bench. It worked initially as Gard took over, but it also appears production has begun to tail off as the wear and tear of the long B1G season catches up with them.

Take away Ethan Happ from the equation and things are ugly for the production from the four other key youthful members of Wisconsin’s rotation. Alex Illikainen hasn’t scored a single point since Wisconsin’s 69-60 win over Illinois, meaning he’s on a five-game scoreless drought.

Meanwhile, Charlie Thomas has added just 7 points in the past five games and Khalil Iverson has followed up 16 points over three games with a giant goose egg over the last two contests.

All three of them have been key bench scorers for the Badgers at different times during the final 13 games of UW’s regular season run. However, all three of those freshmen have looked gassed and lost in UW’s last two losses.

Getting them in form and being helpful pieces to the puzzle is nearly as big as seeing the starters find their stroke on both ends of the court.

While UW’s recent struggles have plenty of people scratching their heads, ultimately it will on the players to figure out what’s going on internally. If that group can’t figure it out, it may be an early out for the Badgers in the NCAA tournament.

Andrew Coppens

About Andrew Coppens

Andy is a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA). He is the Managing Editor of MadTownBadger and associate editor of Bloguin's World Cup site, 32flags.com as well as Publisher of Big Ten site talking10.com