MADISON - At this point of the season, the only thing that that has stopped the University of Wisconsin is the black line 15 feet from the hoop. Everything else has gone according to plan for the third-best team in the country.
Frank Kaminsky and Nigel Hayes again used their size advantage to register double doubles, as the Badgers overcame a woeful shooting night from the free throw line to distance itself from Green Bay in the second half for an 84-60 victory at the Kohl Center Wednesday night.
Hayes finished with a team and career-high 25 points, including two crucial 3-pointers on consecutive possessions – one from each elbow - in the second half around the 13 minute mark that finally allowed Wisconsin (3-0) to feel generate some space against the feisty Phoenix.
“He’s another year better,” UW coach Bo Ryan said of Hayes, “and look out.”
Hayes also finished in double digits rebounding for the third consecutive game, finishing off his second straight double-double with 11 rebounds. The 2014 Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year, Hayes is pulling down 11.3 rebounds per game, but appeared more concerned with missing four of his 11 free throws.
“I missed four free throws, which is shocking,” said Hayes. “I felt like I missed nine.”
Kaminsky finished three blocks shy of a triple double, pouring in 20 points and 15 points, his third straight double-digit rebounding game. Junior Sam Dekker added 19, as UW’s three bigs scored a combined 64 points on 22-for-36 shooting, not to mention securing 30 of the team’s 45 rebounds.
When a reporter suggested they likely wouldn’t get that kind of production every night from the front court, Kaminsky simply rebutted ‘Why not?’
“We’re going to try,” said Kaminsky. “We’ve got a lot of weapons on this team. This is a pretty deep team. Things were clicking on the right cylinders for us tonight. We went out and everyone had a good game. I don’t see why we can’t do this more going forward.”
Free throw line shooting was no concern a year ago. Wisconsin finished 74-6 percent from the free throw line, which ranked second in the Big Ten and 25th in the NCAA. Making more free throws (642) than its opponents attempted (579), Wisconsin’s 642 made free throws set a school record, as did the Badgers’ 861 attempts.
With much the same roster back, it’s been 53-for-80 (66.3 percent). Finishing 24-for-37 from the line (64.9 percent), Wisconsin missed at least one free throw on nine of its 12 trips to the line in the first half.
“Free throws are kind of contagious,” said Dekker. “When we’re making them all they seem a little easier. It takes the pressure off. I don’t know why is it, but it’s that way … Second half I thought we were a little bit better, a little bit more calm and just get up to the stripe and do what we usually do.”
The good news is the Badgers did get to the line frequently, causing headaches for Green Bay (1-1) as the fouls racked up and limited its rotation. The Phoenix lost senior center Greg Mays, who was a big weapon lost for the Phoenix when he fouled out with 9:24 remaining, and struggled with players getting in rhythm entering and leaving halftime.
“They penalize you for taking bad shots or turning the ball over and not finishing at the rim,” said Green Bay coach Brian Wardle. “The last five minutes of the first half, we were in foul trouble … and we didn’t finish that half off the way we could.”
A year after pouring in 32 points against the Badgers, senior guard Keifer Sykes – the first player in program history to appear on the Wooden Award Preseason Top 50 - again found ways to generate offense. He finished with 20 points on 9-for-17 shooting, but got little help from his teammates.
Nobody on the Phoenix scored more than eight points and players not named Sykes shot a combined 14-for-48 from the floor.“Our front line, we needed to produce more,” Wardle said. “Keifer needed more help in this game and I felt it was hard.”
Wisconsin also successfully adjusted on the senior, who Ryan calls one of the fastest players in recent memory off the dribble. Sykes only attempted six shots and scored six points in the second half.
After holding Green Bay to 35.4 percent from the floor and 16.7 percent from 3-point range (2-for-23), Wisconsin is holding opponents to 45.3 points per game, shooting just 31.6 percent from the floor and 20.0 percent from 3-point range.
“There are some areas where we are showing signs of getting better,” said Ryan.
After being suspended for the first two games of the season, not to mention the closed-door scrimmage and UW’s lone exhibition game, by the NCAA because of an eligibility issue, senior Duje Dukan played 16 minutes and finished with five points.
“He deserved to get out there and hit some shots for us, just get back in the flow of things,” said Dekker. “… He gave us 16 good minutes, and we’re looking for many more of those this year. He’s got a lot of talent, and we’re excited with what we’re seeing from Duje.”
With Dukan’s return, Wisconsin now has the ability to go big, really big, as Dukan, Dekker, Hayes and Kaminsky – all players over 6-9 – were on the floor with Traevon Jackson running the point.
“You can see all kinds of combos this year,” said Ryan.
Combine that with Hayes’ improved overall game, that’s another scary concept for opponents to handle.