Coming off probably the greatest season in program history, Wisconsin enter this season with plenty of question marks. While the expectations aren’t what they were a season ago, No.17 Wisconsin enters the 2015-16 season with the same kind of excitement as they did last year due to all the unknowns that surround the program.
The first step to start figuring out the answers to this year’s youthful team begins Friday night in the season opener against Western Illinois. The Leathernecks clearly are in rebuilding mode coming off an 8-20 season, which included a nine game losing streak to end the year and going 0-13 on the road last season.
In this Badger Nation feature, we will look at the three keys or questions for Wisconsin as it strives to win against Western Illinois.
Lay up: What kind of production can Wisconsin get from its bench?
Wisconsin lost three players from its starting lineup from a season ago and two key reserves in Traevon Jackson and Duje Dukan, leaving a lot of unknowns on how the bench might fair going forward this season. It appears that Wisconsin will rely on redshirt sophomore Jordan Hill and true freshmen forwards Alex Illikainen, Khalil Iverson and Charlie Thomas to provide a spark off the bench. That youthful trio combined to score 31 of the team’s 54 bench points against UW-River Falls. With the uncertainty of the eligibility of Andy Van Vliet, Illikainen might have carved out a role for himself this season after it appeared early on he would likely redshirt. It was good to see the bench be able to contribute against UW-River Falls, but it was a small sample size against a team that was clearly overmatched.
Although the bench will see much tougher defenses than Western Illinois (70.8 points allowed a season ago), they will have a chance to help the starters, in turn getting a nice confidence boost if they can find a way to consistently score. If they can’t find the bottom of the net, the bench will continue to be relied on to help do the little things – make the right pass, boxing out and being the aggressor going for loose balls or rebounds.
Mid-range jumper: The play of Wisconsin’s frontcourt
Western Illinois only returns one starter from its frontcourt in 6-8 Tate Stensgaard, who averaged 4.3 points in 20 games before he missed the rest of the season with a wrist injury. Although the Leathernecks should be able to match the height of Wisconsin’s starting frontcourt, they only have two other players on the roster who has started a game last season in Jalen Chapman (seven starts) and Mike Miklusak (11 starts).
Vitto Brown, Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes should be too much for the Leathernecks’ frontcourt to defend due to the versatility of the three. The ability of Hayes to be able to play on the perimeter or around the basket should cause either Chapman or Miklusak problems when they defend him. If Hayes can consistently create the separation that’s needed in order for him to get a clean shot off on the perimeter, or the ability to drive, he will likely draw fouls against a team that averaged 17.8 a season ago or open up other opportunities around the rim for him and his teammates.
Both Brown and Thomas will get touches in the paint and need to take what is given without trying forcing shots. If UW can get Stensgarrd into foul trouble (he averaged over three last season), it will help make life easier for Wisconsin’s offense in finishing around the rim.
3-pointer: Slowing Garret Covington down
Covington is one of two returning starters for Western Illinois, leading the way with 15.5 points while shooting 37.6 percent from the field as a sophomore. J.C. Fuller (12 points per game) is another offensive option, but it is clear that the offense is run through Covington and his 12.8 attempts a game last season. Bronson Koenig will likely draw the matchup and will need to contest every shot, not to mention rely on his frontcourt players to limit second-chance opportunities.
Although Covington – a second-team All-Summit player the last two seasons - can drive the ball into the lane, he has hit 37.1 percent from 3-point range in his first two years. Whether it be Bronson Koenig and Zak Showalter defending Covington, the pair will need to make sure that he can’t consistently find ways of getting open for a shot off screens. It will be key for Wisconsin to hedge the screens properly to make sure Showalter isn’t consistently matched up against the perceived speedier Covington. If Wisconsin can properly defend Covington it should hopefully make life difficult for the Leathernecks of finding ways to score.