Through eight games, we have a firm idea of what Head Coach Bo Ryan is going to do with his starting five. For the seventh time in eight games, Wisconsin's starting five was Mike Bruesewitz, Josh Gasser, Jon Leuer, Keaton Nankivil and Jordan Taylor, and the group sprinted out to a 10-2 lead by utilizing sound ball movement.
With South Dakota (3-5) not having a single player over 6-foor-9, the Badgers (6-2) threw the ball inside to attract a crowd and quickly kicked the ball outside to a wide-open player for a three-point bucket. The ball movement was also prevalent on a stretch midway through the first half, when the Badgers recorded an assist on eight straight buckets.
Still, the Badgers missed a handful of open looks and struggled at times with the Coyotes' zone defense, which caused Jordan Taylor to be more aggressive, driving the ball into the paint and finding the open teammate or getting to the free throw line. Taylor finished with 20 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists because of that productivity, falling one assist shy of the school's first triple-double.
"I was trying to create other opportunities for myself and my teammates," Taylor said. "We were attacking a little bit. Most of the game, we were doing a really bad job finishing. I think if we made those, it would look a little different."
The curious development Saturday was senior Brett Valentyn seeing significant first half minutes and getting on the floor before junior Rob Wilson. Wilson, who is still trying to get back to 100 percent from a hamstring injury suffered a week prior to the opener, was the next substitute in.
The move seemed to spark Wilson, who shot 3-for-3 from the floor in the first 20 minutes, scoring six points and dishing two assists in seven minutes. He did not play in the second half, which Ryan said was due to Wilson not doing some things defensively that warranted playing time.
"If you want to get rewarded, you have to do the right things," Ryan said.
Bench production will need to improve, however, as UW's bench registered only 14 points, six of which came from Wilson. Ryan Evans also had a rough day, committing three turnovers in six minutes of play.
Freshman Josh Gasser entered the game with a 20-to-5 assist-to-turnover ratio, but was yanked twice in the first half for poor passes, including an over-the-top pass that banked off the backboard and nearly rattled in for a free. After an ensuing three-pointer by the Coyotes, Ryan spent the first five seconds of a 30 second timeout screaming at the freshman.
"There's time for one-handed passes off the dribble," Ryan said. "We haven't been one of the best teams in the country taking care of the ball my accident."
Seven first-half turnovers (all off steals) made UW's game Saturday a lot closer than it needed to be, as seven UW miscues turned into 13 points and a five-point halftime lead. The Badgers also need to be more productive getting to the line, as the Badgers shot only nine free throws.
The Badgers only had two turnovers after halftime, presumably after a 15-minute chewing-out period from Ryan. As a result, UW registered 20 assists to nine turnovers, improving their team assist-to-turnover ratio to 1.8, best in the country.
Facing a team shooting an average of 22.1 three-pointers a game, the Coyotes' shooting was expected to keep them close. Wisconsin didn't help itself with the amount of open looks South Dakota had handed to them and the Coyotes found success working in transition, hitting an open three and finding a rhythm offensively.
Despite the size advantage, Wisconsin only out rebounded South Dakota by three and notched five blocks, struggling at times to contain junior guard Charlie Westbrook. The Milwaukee native led South Dakota in scoring for the sixth time in eight games this season, scoring 18 points, but it was a battle for the rest of his team. Take away his 7-for-16 shooting, South Dakota shot only 35.9 percent.
As a team, South Dakota shot 28 percent in the second half after the Badgers closed out on shooters a little better and limited the Coyotes to only seven three-point attempts after halftime, a product of UW not turning the ball over to allow South Dakota to have some easy run outs.
"That was there M.O., to come in and start shooting," senior Jon Leuer said. "In hindsight, close out and maybe play some screen differently. There were pushing in transition, coming down with maybe 25 seconds left in the shot clock and firing up threes."
Good effort from Wisconsin to get the job done in a game is never trailed, but the Badgers have certainly played better. Wisconsin will need more production from the bench and a third scorer to step up. Keaton Nankivil needs to find his game. He played just two minutes in the first half and seven minutes overall, finishing with zero points and one rebound on three missed shots.
Give the Badgers credit on their perimeter production, scoring 36 points on 31 three-point shots, and taking what South Dakota gave them. SD Coach Dave Boots admitted that the Coyotes threw a lot of double teams, causing UW to pick and choose its shots, and played four guards to try and create mismatches. For the most part, UW took advantage of what was given to them, but will need to get more production with three in-state games on the docket.
Game MVP: Leuer hit five three-pointers in the first half on his way to scoring 20 of his career-high 29 points in the first half, but Taylor was pretty special with his near triple-double performance.