Winners of five straight, Wisconsin has started to get on a roll. Not only has the Badgers won four of their past five games by double figures, Wisconsin’s defense has only allowed its past five opponents to average 62 points a game. It’s a stark change from a year ago when Wisconsin lost five of six in conference play, including a bizarre home loss to Northwestern that was considered the low point of the stretch.
The Wildcats (10-12, 1-8 Big Ten) return to the scene of the crime having lost eight straight games, but those losses are by an average of eight points and half of them have come from five points or less.
In this Badger Nation feature, we will look at the three keys or questions for Wisconsin as they play Northwestern for the second time this season and strive for its sixth straight win.
Lay up: Consistently contesting Northwestern shots
Wisconsin will be favored and should be able to build a double digit lead like they did in the first matchup in Evanston. The Badgers defense was able to create a 32-point advantage over Indiana before they allowed the Hoosiers to shoot their way back into the game. Northwestern isn’t as good of a shooting team as Indiana but it is easy to make a comeback when you consistently allow open shots.
Northwestern ranks eighth in the Big Ten in offensive field goal percentage, five spot below the Hoosiers at 43.6 percent. Wisconsin ranks first in points allowed (56.5 points a game), but have allowed its opponents to shoot a good field goal percentage (41.7 percent), which ranks 10th in the Big Ten. Wisconsin’s defense needs to contest shots and prevent open looks.
Three players for Northwestern score in double figures with Bryant McIntosh leading the way with 12.2 points a game on 43.7 shooting from the field, Tre Demps is second averaging 11.9 points a game, and Alex Olah with 11 points a game. The trio combined for 37 of Northwestern’s 58 points in the first matchup of the season against Wisconsin. Josh Gasser and Bronson Koenig, will be tasked with defending Demps and McIntosh, respectively. Frank Kaminsky will draw the assignment of Olah down low after holding him to seven points on 3-for-8 shooting from the field.
Even though Northwestern has lost eight straight, at one point they lost three straight games by an average of 1.6 points. Maryland was given the biggest scare by Northwestern with a one-point home win. Wisconsin can’t overlook the Wildcats. As long as Wisconsin can get a hand in one of Northwestern’s guards face and force them to pick up a dribble, it will force Demps or McIntosh to give the basketball up to try and reset the offense.
Perimeter shots also play into the hands of the Badgers. Northwestern is shooting 34.8 percent from three, which ranks ninth in the Big Ten. Koenig’s matchup, likely McIntosh, is shooting 39.2 percent from three. McIntosh isn’t going to force any shot, so Koenig will have to be ready to defend him whenever he has the ball in his hands.
Mid-range jumper: Can Wisconsin create the turnovers
If Wisconsin can create a double-digit lead and build some distance from Northwestern, it could be done due to forcing Northwestern into turnovers. Northwestern has turned the basketball over 109 times during Big Ten play, an average of 12.1 times a game, and only have had two games of less than 10 turnovers. For comparison, Wisconsin has committed only 56 turnovers in conference play.
The Wildcats have been in many close games, but it has become difficult to win averaging that many turnovers a game in the Big Ten. Although forcing opponents into 11 miscues a game, Wisconsin is only averaging five a game but could see that number spike by successfully pressuring the basketball and using its length to cut off any possible passing lanes.
The likely candidate to create a turnover for Northwestern is McIntosh, who averages 2.7 turnovers a game and committed four turnovers in the first meeting against the Badgers. Having committed at least three turnovers in three of the past four games, McIntosh has a total of 26 in Big Ten play. Koenig, who will be on McIntosh, will likely be able to create turnovers if provides solid pressure. Depending on the situation, you could see two Badgers collapsing on him when he get the ball to put a little more pressure on the young guard.
If not Koenig, look for Zak Showalter to make an impact, as he is one of the players as of late who has been able to create a steal for Wisconsin. Showalter only has eight steals on the season but half have come in the past five games and two came against Indiana. If Showalter can once again be actively looking for ways of deflecting a pass or coming up with a steal, it will limit what Northwestern can do on the offensive end.
3-pointer: Establishing the paint
Frank Kaminsky continues to take what defenses have given him, resulting in him scoring 20 or more points in three of the past four games. Kaminsky registered a double-double in the first matchup against the Wildcats but has only notched one since.
Even though Olah has the size to match up with Kaminsky, he doesn’t have the athletic ability or skill set required to consistently defense him on the low block or on the perimeter. Just like against Indiana, Kaminsky may not need to take a lot of 3-pointers considering his advantage of scoring in the paint of drawing fouls. It should be more of that Saturday with Wisconsin running the offense through Kaminsky to help create shots for other players.
Getting the ball down low consistently will begin with ball movement on offense. Averaging 12.8 assists per game, Wisconsin registered 23 assists on 30 made field goals in the field meeting. Even if Wisconsin hasn’t been able to register an assist on a made shot, they still have been able to get to the free throw line or make their opponents work on the defensive side of the floor as they consistently look for the best shot.
Northwestern ranks third in defensive rebounding percentage (72.7 percent a game), which will test a Wisconsin group that averages a defensive rebound 76.8 percent of the time. Olah leads the team in rebounds (6.5) but only has a combined three rebounds the last two games, and Wisconsin was able to limit him to four rebounds in the first meeting.
Wisconsin has done well consistently winning the rebounding battle, as they rank second in rebounding margin with a plus 6.1 margin. Both Kaminsky and Nigel Hayes have done well of boxing out and securing loose rebounds. Any extra chances of getting points on an offensive possession will be good as it will continue to help create possible different shots for Wisconsin and will help continue to wear down Northwestern’s defense.