Winning the outright Big Ten title by two games, Wisconsin finished Big Ten play at 16-2, its most wins in conference since winning the outright title in 2007-08 season. Not only was the win total an impressive program mark, the Badgers are just the third team in the Big Ten since 1996-97 to register 28 regular season wins (Illinois 29 in 2004-05 and Ohio State 28 in 2010-11).
Although this will be Wisconsin’s fourth time as the top seed in the Big Ten Tournament, that hasn’t always meant automatic success. While the Badgers won the outright title the last time they were the top seed, the Badgers’ first two experiences as the highest seed ended after one game.
Regardless of seed, head coach Bo Ryan usually finds success in the Big Ten Tournament. The Big Ten Coach of the Year ranks third among active Big Ten coaches for most wins in the tournament (14), trailing Tom Izzo (22) and That Matta (21).
In this Badger Nation feature, we will look at the three keys or questions for Wisconsin as it strives to win the Big Ten Tournament crown for the third time under Ryan.
Lay up: Winning the close games
A weird question to ask but the fact is that Wisconsin has won its games by an average of 18.1 points and hasn’t played in many close games this season. During Big Ten play there were only six games that were decided by single digits. Wisconsin went 4-2 in those games. It will be interesting to see how they react if/when the time comes. At the same time it would be hard to believe that this group would get tremendously rattled considering the tournament experience this group possesses.
Depending on how the games shake out, Wisconsin could find themselves in some tight-knit games considering how this season’s games finished. Wisconsin will face a Michigan team Friday that it beat by five in overtime on the road. If Wisconsin advances, the Badgers could face Purdue, whose strong defensive principles turn UW’s 7-point win into a grinding affair.
Despite entering the tournament 3-7 in their last 10 games, the Wolverines throttled Illinois, 73-55, in Thursday morning’s quarterfinals. Playing mostly for pride against a team that was fighting for a NCAA tournament berth, Michigan ended the first half on a 23-4 run because the Wolverines found a rhythm from the perimeter.
Hitting six first half 3-pointers, Michigan registered assists on nine of its 15 made field goals attempts in the first half, as Illinois’ defense – or lack thereof – outside the lane allowed Michigan to move the ball around the perimeter and pick them a part with open jump shots. Considering Michigan scores over 37 percent of its offense from the 3-point line, Illinois evidently missed the memo of needing to run Michigan’s guards off the perimeter.
Wisconsin did a decent job of that in the victory in Ann Arbor, as Michigan went only 7-for-20 from 3-point range, shooting 25 percent in the first half and overtime and 50 percent in the second half. The Wolverines have played three more overtime games since their Jan.24 defeat to Wisconsin and all ended in losses, games in which Michigan shot 30, 23.5 and 45.8 percent from the perimeter.
Considering Michigan starts four guards, it’s not all that surprising the Wolverines struggled to stop UW’s three-man frontcourt that are 6-9 or taller. With the way the Badgers’ frontcourt is currently playing, it could once again prove to be too big of an issue for Michigan to overcome, as the Badgers scored 30 of their 69 points in the paint in the victory.
Mid-range jumper: Can Wisconsin create second chances?Wisconsin should be able to consistently find success on the offensive glass against Michigan, as the Badgers were able to record nine offensive boards against the Wolverines. It could be a different story if they advance against either Penn State or Purdue.
The Boilermakers have both shown to be one of the stronger rebounding teams in the Big Ten – fourth in the league averaging 24.6 defensive rebounds a game - and can matchup well with Wisconsin’s size. In the team's only meeting in Madison, Wisconsin was limited to four offensive rebounds. Purdue’s A.J. Hammons ranks eighth in the Big Ten with 6.5 rebounds a game.
Second-chance opportunities by Wisconsin will continue to supply the pressure on either Penn State or Purdue, as Wisconsin has averaged 9.4 offensive rebounds over the last 10 games. That will begin with the play of Wisconsin’s frontcourt to consistently come up with 50-50 rebounds.Although Frank Kaminsky leads Wisconsin in rebounds a game, it is Nigel Hayes and Sam Dekker who lead the team in offensive rebounds a game by averaging 2.1 and 2.0 a game, respectively. Dekker has also registered at least three offensive rebounds twice over the last four games for Wisconsin.
If Dekker can keep up that streak, the Badgers should be able to find ways of capitalizing on those opportunities, as the Badgers are averaging 10.1 points off of second chance opportunities in Big Ten play. Simply put, multiple second chance opportunities will help establish an offensive rhythm and help set the tempo.
3-pointer: Preventing dribble penetration
Wisconsin has struggled to stop dribble penetration against a handful of quick, slashing guards this season. The best example was Maryland in the team’s lone matchup, as Dez Wells and Melo Trimble consistently found the driving lanes to have the success they needed to and give the Terps a 59-53 home victory.
Wisconsin wouldn’t face Maryland until Sunday’s championship game. While Wisconsin’s road to Sunday is slightly easier, the Terps could have to play No.6 seed Ohio State Friday and No.3 Michigan State Saturday.
Dekker will need to be more aggressive at the point of attack on defense against Wells, who was named a first team All-Big Ten selection by the coaches. Wells finished with 26 points on 9-for-17 shooting from the field with Dekker having a big part in “defending” him and could not stop the dribble drives. Dekker has to try and force Wells to settle for jump shots opposed to the easy lay ups that were consistently given to him last time.
If Dekker can remain aggressive on defense without fouling, he has a chance to push his steal streak to five straight games. Even though he didn’t turn the ball over against Wisconsin, Wells is averaging three turnovers a game, not to mention having a four-turnover and a six-turnover game in his last three outings.
One way to help disrupt the rhythm on offense for Wells is limiting Maryland – or any team - to one shot per offensive possession. Wisconsin has only allowed one team (Minnesota) over the last six games to register double digit offensive rebounds. Kaminsky has had a big part in that, as he has recorded a minimum of five defensive rebounds in each of his last 13 games. Wisconsin is allowing its opponents just 10.5 points off second chance opportunities, including hold the Terrapins to eight second chance points. Over the last five games, Wisconsin has allowed 8.4 second chance points.
Even if Dekker and Co. improve their defense, Wisconsin’s best prevention for stopping dribble drives is Kaminsky. Currently tied with Jared Berggren for first in career blocks with 144, the conference’s player of the year has altered dozens upon dozens of shots with his length, reach and footwork. If Kaminsky stays on the court, the Badgers have the best weapon in the Big Ten.