It was expected that Wisconsin was going to struggle at times on offense due to the youth of the roster, considering only Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes have played significant minutes, but it was also presumed that the offense would have success against a Western Illinois team that gave up 70.8 points a game last year. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case.
The offense clearly struggled, especially going without a field goal for long stretches in the second half, including a 4:35 drought and an 8:05 stretch. During the latter stretch, UW went 0-for-9 from the field, 0-for-5 from 3-point range, 3-for-8 from the free-throw line, saw freshman Khalil Iverson miss three layups and saw a 53-51 lead turn into a deficit of eight points.
Wisconsin shot well in the first half - going 14-for-30 (46.7 percent) from the field - but the inability to make open shots dipped the second-half percentage down to 25 percent on 8-for-32 shooting from the field. UW also struggled to convert in the paint, finishing the game with 20 points in the interior despite 21 offensive rebounds.
Hayes (4-for-13) and Koenig (7-for-15) each finished the game with 17 points but all of Hayes’ points came in the first half. Vitto Brown finished third on the team in scoring with 11 points on 3-for-8 shooting, as Zak Showalter had eight points (none in the final 32 minutes) and Ethan Happ had a disappointing four points in only 19 minutes.
A little bit of silver lining – Wisconsin committed only four turnovers, resulting in only five points for Western Illinois. As expected, Koenig was excellent handling the ball with two assists and no turnovers.
The key coming into the game was to slow down guard Garret Covington. Wisconsin did that for the first 26 minutes (holding him to two points) but things started to change at the 14:13 mark in the second half. Starting with a made 3-pointer to give Western Illinois a one-point lead, Covington became the scorer that he has shown over his first two years at Western Illinois, scoring 14 points on 5-for-8 shooting from the field and knocking down the game-winning free throws with 10 seconds left.
As good as Covington was in the last 14 minutes of the game, he had J.C. Fuller to thank for keeping his team within striking distance in order to pull the upset. Fuller finished the game with 20 points on 8-for-13 shooting and was a perfect 4-for-4 from 3-point range The combination between Fuller and Covington proved to be too much for Wisconsin’s backcourt to handle, as Western Illinois consistently slashed into the paint for easy lay ups that resulted in 30 points in the paint.
Allowing teams to constantly drive into the lane usually means a good percentage from the floor. Western Illinois finished 27-for-50 (54 percent) from the field, but the porous defensive effort wasn’t confined to not stopping dribble penetration. Wisconsin was consistently lackadaisical in contesting shots on the perimeter. It seemed like Western Illinois consistently had an open look from three, shooting a whopping 77.8 percent on 7-for-9 shooting.
There were moments where Wisconsin did actually contest a shot. UW finished with six blocks (Iverson 3, Brown 2, Charlie Thomas 1). Wisconsin was somewhat productive when they contested a shot, able to alter shooting lines, but didn’t do it nearly enough because of its struggles with rotations.
Wisconsin’s defensive pressure did force 10 turnovers, six of which came off of steals. Iverson led the team with three steals, including his first one that led to his first collegiate points on a dunk in the first half. Regardless, the defensive pressure wasn’t as consistent as it should have been.
Wisconsin finished the first half strong and build a 7-point lead at halftime but watched the wheels come off after that. Unable to buy a bucket coming out of the locker room, UW finished the game 22-for-62 (35.5 percent) from the field, had too many rushed or panic possessions and couldn’t come up with enough key defensive stops against a team that didn’t register a road victory last season.
For their first games, Iverson and Thomas added some scoring with a combined 10 points but didn’t shoot the ball anywhere close to consistent (Iverson 1-6, Thomas 2-7). Thomas and Iverson were both able to come up with critical offensive rebounds and there were times Thomas found himself open from the mid-range. It’s a shot he has shown that he can make but never got the right touch. In the end, there were too many freshman mistakes of inopportune fouls or not being stronger/more aggressive to the ball.
Brown was one of the few key catalyst late in the game for Wisconsin, scoring six of Wisconsin’s nine points, but really struggled to defend the paint. He was consistently beaten with a post move or couldn’t properly front the post, similar problems that kept him on the bench last season. To be fair, he did come up with a key steal by using his size to cut off a scoring lane underneath the hoop, leading to him converting the layup on the other end to tie the game at 67, but Brown has to make massive improvements defensively.
The same could be said about Happ, whose struggles with his footwork made him a liability and cost Wisconsin a low-post presence.
UW outrebounded WIU, 39-31, but could only score 17 second-chance points and missed nine free throws, five in the second half. Those stick out like a sore thumb in retrospect.
Game MVP: Bronson Koenig. Nobody really deserves this distinction, but Koenig did keep Wisconsin in the game in the second half by going 5-for-10 from the field and 2-for-5 from 3-point range. In Koenig’s 37 minutes of work he was able to do a little bit of everything. The only thing he couldn’t do was get his last shot to fall to force overtime. If Koenig doesn’t play the way he does in the second half, Wisconsin would have likely been blown out.