Just like the trip to New York for the 2K Classic, Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan will find out a lot about his young team as they get set to play two challenging road games in four days, starting with No.7 Oklahoma Sunday afternoon.
Wisconsin faced the Sooners a season ago in the championship game in the Battle 4 Atlantis and beat a talented Sooners squad, 69-56. Oklahoma, who made the Sweet 16 last season, will be looking to pay Wisconsin back from last season with a unit that has four returning starters from last season and has won its first three games by an average of 21.6 points.
In this Badger Nation feature, we will look at the three keys or questions for Wisconsin as it strives to win against Oklahoma.
Lay up: The growth of Khalil Iverson and Charlie Thomas
Iverson and Thomas both have made freshman mistakes but have grown since the season opener, especially over the last three games. The duo have combined to score 37 points off the bench on a combined 15-for-27 (55.5 percent) shooting from the field and continue to do the little things that will get them minutes on the court. Thomas leads the team with five blocks and Iverson is tied for second on the team in steals with five.
As good as the two have been recently, the Sooners will provide another measuring stick to see how much Iverson and Thomas have grown. In order for Wisconsin to stay within striking distance of Oklahoma, Iverson and Thomas will need to be able to score and defend a team averaging 88.3 points (25th in the country).
The Sooners score by finding ways of getting the ball in the paint to their frontcourt players, who average 41.6 points in the paint and scored 53 points against Incarnate Word. Thomas has been strong defending the paint and contesting shots when he’s been on the floor. With Wisconsin still in search of a rim protector, Wisconsin will need to rely on Thomas to disrupt the rhythm of Oklahoma’s frontcourt. In particular, the Badgers will need to be ready to defend Ryan Spangler and Khadeem Lattin, who are shooting 58 percent and 42 percent, respectively, from the field.
Iverson has been steady all season, as he averages five points in 20.8 minutes off the bench, but will certainly will receive a challenge likely defending a double-digit scorer from Oklahoma’s starting backcourt. Iverson has guarded the team’s opposing small forward at times but Oklahoma will likely try to get Iverson in a mismatch to test him. If this is the case, Iverson will need to help cut off any driving lanes to the basket.
Mid-range jumper: Can Wisconsin win the rebounding battle
For six straight games, Wisconsin has won the rebounding battle and done so by an average of seven rebounds. That streak may be in jeopardy against Oklahoma, which is averaging 48.3 rebounds a game. That number might be slightly inflated when you consider Oklahoma has faced Memphis (48 rebounds), McNeese State (46 rebounds) and Incarnate Word (51 rebounds). For comparisons, Oklahoma averaged 38.1 rebounds a game with a rebounding edge of 1.6 a game last season.
Wisconsin has done well being the aggressive team and winning more than its fair share of 50-50 balls, especially on the defensive glass. Overall, Wisconsin averages 22.6 defensive rebounds a game, as Ethan Happ (27 defensive rebounds), Zak Showalter (23) and Vitto Brown (20) have been the most active.
Wisconsin will be going up against a veteran Oklahoma starting frontcourt, as Spangler and Lattin have combined to collect 15 of the team’s 39 offensive rebounds thru three games. Not only will Brown and Happ need to do an efficient job of boxing out, they will need to limit the fouls, which has been a problem over the two over the last three games. Wisconsin will need to have those two use their length to help make sure neither Spangler nor Lattin can grab an uncontested rebound. Wisconsin can rely on others to help rebound but that will require Brown and Happ to get the better positioning and be able to effectively box out.
Averaging 13 offensive rebounds per game, Oklahoma will likely get some second-chance opportunity, so the Badgers will have to be relentless on defensive possessions. The Sooners are shooting 49.7 percent from the field and averaging 15 points off offensive rebounds. The Badgers on average allow 10.5 second chance points a game.
3-pointer: Stopping Buddy Hield
Wisconsin made sure Hield didn’t beat them down in the Bahamas last season, as the Badgers held the guard to nine points on 2-for-11 shooting (one of three games last season in single digits). The Badgers likely won’t be as lucky this time around, as the senior has been putting together some monster numbers thru three games. The first-team All-American and Big 12 preseason player of the year is averaging 25.3 points per game, shooting 56.8 percent from the field on an average of 14.7 shot attempts a game.
Bronson Koenig will likely draw the matchup of Hield and will need to deliver his best defensive effort of the season, which may require him to get his first steals of the season. Hield can score in multiple ways: driving to the rim, creating separation on jump shots and hitting from the perimeter, shooting 57.9 percent from 3-point range. He also has committed just one turnover the last two games and is getting his teammates involved by averaging three assists a game.
That makes rebounding and fighting through screens much more critical for Wisconsin, as the Badgers can’t afford to give Hield more opportunities on offense. The Badgers will need to be consistently communicating so they don’t get lost on the defense and allow Hield a matchup he can exploit. Wisconsin could also potentially use a little more length at times to try and slow Hield down but it will be a team effort to try and take the ball out of his hands.