Even though Penn State broke Wisconsin’s five game streak of double-digit wins, the Badgers left with their most cherished streak still intact, as their eight-point victory gives them ninth straight victories. Inching closer to a piece of the Big Ten title, Wisconsin returns to Madison as they get set to play one of their last two home games inside the Kohl Center against Minnesota.
With five games remaining on the schedule, Wisconsin will face the Gophers (16-11, 5-9 Big Ten) twice over the next 12 days. Minnesota has dropped consecutive conference games, including a clunker at home Wednesday night to Northwestern. The Gophers are 1-7 in Big Ten road games and have yet to beat a ranked team this season.
In this Badger Nation feature, we will look at the three keys or questions for Wisconsin as it strives for its 10th straight win.
Lay up: Can Wisconsin inbounds the ball?Getting the ball in play has been anything but a sure thing for Wisconsin over the past three games, as teams have been able to successfully apply pressure that forces the Badgers to burn timeouts. They haven’t cost Wisconsin a win, obviously, but the Gophers are one of the best constant pressure teams in the Big Ten. Using their length to try and tip the ball to create a steal, Minnesota uses that style as a catalyst to its offense, which averages 74.4 points a game.
Showing active hands all year, Minnesota leads the Big Ten with 10.3 steals a game, which also ranks second in the NCAA behind West Virginia. During nonconference play there was only three games where the Gophers failed to record double-digit steals. In conference play, Minnesota hasn’t had a game recording fewer than five steals and averages 8.4 steals in Big Ten play.
Wisconsin’s emphasis on taking care of the ball (7.4 turnovers a game) will make it difficult for Minnesota to force turnovers. With Wisconsin leading the Big Ten in fewest turnovers, Michigan and Illinois rank second and third, respectively, in fewest turnovers in conference. Minnesota has faced both of those teams once so far this season and in both of the games the Gophers were able to record six steals. With Minnesota showing that they can still find ways of forcing turnovers against some of the better teams, Wisconsin will need to make sure that they don’t have any mental lapses with the ball.
Whoever is inbounding the ball for Wisconsin will need to make crisp passes to help neutralize Minnesota’s length and quickness. In some situations Wisconsin may even try and throw the ball to backcourt to reset the offense, depending on the shot clock situation. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Wisconsin put emphasis on those designed inbounds plays to limit situations that would cause them to dip into its timeouts.
Mid-range jumper: Turning the shooting corner
Wisconsin has shown to be a good shooting team, ranking second in the Big Ten in field goal percentage at 48 percent, but the Badgers have shot below 40 percent from the field in three of the last four games. The Badgers should feel good about returning home considering they’ve only failed once to shoot above 40 percent this season in Big Ten play, which was in the win over Northwestern. Overall Wisconsin is shooting a blistering 50.7 percent from the field inside the Kohl Center on an average of 49 field goal attempts.
Minnesota has struggled at times to consistently contest shots and have only held two opponents to below 40 percent shooting from the field. Minnesota ranks 12th in the Big Ten when it comes to field goal percentage defense (42.7 percent) and is allowing home teams to shoot 44.7 percent from the field on 49.8 field goal attempts a game.
Even with Minnesota having the length to matchup with Wisconsin, the Badgers will need to continue to space the floor well and hunt for the best shot. The Badgers have shown to be a strong passing team, as all the starters have the capability of locating the open man and delivering an accurate pass to a teammate. It’s the main reason Wisconsin averages 12.6 assists a game.
Wisconsin is at its best when it works the ball inside and attempts high percentage shots with Frank Kaminsky or Nigel Hayes, both of whom are also good passers who can find open players on the perimeter. Considering the Gophers, in their last two games, allowed Indiana to hit 18 3-pointers and Northwestern to hit 15 3-pointers, taking some shots from the perimeter might not be such a bad thing. Wisconsin has shot an average of 32.2 percent from 3-point range over the last five games (on an average of 18.6 attempts a game) and could present themselves with opportunities by consistently working the ball around the court.
If Wisconsin can get some open looks from the perimeter it will be critical that either Kaminksy, Sam Dekker, Bronson Koenig or Josh Gasser find a way to find the bottom of the net. Koenig and Kaminsky lead Wisconsin in 3-point field goal percentage, and Koenig has been solid since being inserted into the starting lineup. Over the last 10 games, Koenig has made at least one 3-pointer in nine games and is shooting 47.8 percent from beyond the arc.
3-pointer: Frank Kaminsky vs. Maurice Walker
Kaminsky has been up-and-down over the last three games, having strong starts and finishes but lacking scoring punch in the middle of games. Wisconsin will need him to be consistent in both halves against Walker, including be willing to be physical down low and bang bodies if he is going to have success around the basket.
Walker has improved over the last three years and has seen his scoring average increase to 11.7 points a game, second on the team behind Andre Hollins’ 15 points. Although only averaging eight shot attempts a game, Walker ranks third in the Big Ten in field goal percentage at 57.9 percent a game, meaning Kaminsky will have his work cut out for him contesting shots and keeping the action in the low post limited to prevent grade-A shot attempts.
Walker has reached double digits in scoring in three of the past five games and leads the team with 6.2 rebounds a game. The frontcourt of Kaminsky and Hayes have consistently done well this year boxing out the opposing team’s frontcourt players to create rebound opportunities. With Walker having such a wide frame, Hayes and Kaminsky will need to make sure they can get the correct positioning to limit loose ball opportunities.
Kaminsky will need to make sure that Walker can’t create open looks for Hollins, who is shooting 44.3 percent from the field. Wisconsin’s defense is allowing 25.2 points in the paint during Big Ten play, and while UW has done well protecting the paint at times this season, two of its past three opponents have registered 30 points around the hoop.
Wisconsin needs to try and run the offense through Kaminsky to create low post scoring opportunities and open up opportunities from the 3-point line. Kaminsky has the innate ability to take over games and carry an offense, especially around the rim. In Big Ten play Wisconsin is averaging 27.8 points in the paint and 71.8 points a game. If Kaminsky can have success down low and can potentially force Walker into foul trouble, it should continue to help the Badgers around the basket.
As fans have seen, Wisconsin offense is versatile with many moving parts that can frustrate a Minnesota defense giving up 65.9 points a game. If Dekker or Hayes can also find a way of scoring around the basket, the Gophers defense won’t be able to have two defenders on Kaminsky consistently. If Kaminsky gets into single coverage in the low post, he should greatly improve on his scoring average of 10.7 points per game against the Gophers in the three meetings from a season ago.