It was a difficult first season in the Big Ten for Rutgers, finishing 10-22 overall and just 2-16 in Big Ten play. Conference play this season started competitively for the Scarlet Knight but their seven-point loss to Indiana Wednesday extended their conference losing streak to 16 games. The Rutgers haven’t win in conference play since last January against a Frank Kaminsky-less Wisconsin.
Wisconsin would like nothing more than to avenge last season’s most surprising loss, but one of the most intriguing things about Wisconsin this year’s team is the uncertainty of which team will show up and how much Wisconsin can improve from game to game.
In this Badger Nation feature, we will look at the three keys or questions for Wisconsin (8-6, 0-1 Big Ten) in order to pick up its first Big Ten win of the season as they face Rutgers (6-8, 0-1) on Saturday afternoon.
Lay up: Winning the rebounding battle
For the first time this season Wisconsin lost a rebounding battle, as Purdue dominated the boards (36-26). The 26 rebounds was the lowest of the season for UW and only the second time the Badgers had less than 30 rebounds in a game. Although Purdue had the size advantage over Wisconsin, the Badgers will once again need to be ready to box out Rutgers off of shot attempts, as the Scarlet Knights average 38.5 rebounds a game.
Wisconsin will have a chance to get back on track against Rutgers and win the rebounding battle. Not only does Wisconsin average 39.6 rebounds a game, which ranks third in the Big Ten, Rutgers has had trouble keeping team’s off the glass, giving up 38.9 boards per game to rank 13th in the league. Rutgers has given up 40 rebounds four times (including 42 to Indiana) and at least 50 rebounds twice.
Despite not having the tallest frontcourts, Wisconsin has the length and has been effective boxing teams out, which has allowed either Ethan Happ or Vitto Brown to come down with the rebound. Happ leads the team with 111 rebounds (7.9 a game) as Brown is second with 95 rebounds.
In particular Wisconsin could find success on the offensive glass. Through 14 games, Rutgers is giving up 12.7 offensive rebounds and has allowed every team to register double digits in offensive rebounds. Nigel Hayes leads the team with 39 offensive rebounds and has helped UW average 13.1 points a game on second chance opportunities.
Mid-range jumper: The play of Bronson Koenig
Koenig has had his struggles this year but you would expect the junior will be able to get back on track sooner rather than later. Over the last four games Koenig is averaging nine points a game and is shooting just 34.2 percent (13-for-38) from the field. The struggles have dropped Koenig’s shooting percentage to 40.2 percent and his scoring average from 15.8 points over the first 10 games to 13.9 points a game.
Despite the shooting struggles, Koenig has done a good job of not forcing shots. But in order for Wisconsin’s offense to find consistency, Koenig needs to return to last year’s form when he averaged 11.5 points a game after being inserted into the starting lineup full time against Rutgers. Koenig has registered nine games this year in double figures but enters Saturday having scored in single digits in consecutive games for the first time this season.
Koenig could be defended by either freshman Corey Sanders or senior Omari Grier. Sanders ranks third in the Big Ten in steals (1.6 per game) and has failed to register a swipe in only two games this season. Overall Rutgers averages 6.9 steals a game, which ranks fourth in the Big Ten. If Sanders is defending Koenig, he will need to try and attack the basket to test Sanders’ inexperience. If Grier is defending him, Koenig will need to be careful against another good on-ball defender.
After committing eight turnovers against Green Bay, Koenig committed zero against Purdue, his first game with zero turnovers since Syracuse and his third game this year. If Koenig can take care of the ball, it should prevent any disruption in UW’s offensive rhythm.
3-pointer: Can Wisconsin’s offense establish consistency?
Wisconsin’s offense have gone through some untimely scoring droughts that has caused them chances to build leads, as Wisconsin missed five straight shots against Purdue to put the momentum squarely on the Boilers’ side. As inconsistent as the Badgers have been, Rutgers’ defense has struggled to slow offenses down, allowing 72.3 points a game on 42.9 percent from the field (both 12th in the Big Ten).
From game to game, it is hard to know which Wisconsin offense will show up. The Badgers have shot the ball better in the second half (43.9 percent) compared to the first (39.3), so connecting on a couple early shot attempts could lead to Wisconsin establishing a nice rhythm against Rutgers.
Over the last two games under Greg Gard, Wisconsin has done a better job developing spacing and movement in the offense by incorporating elements of the swing offense. Over the last four games Wisconsin has averaged 12 assists a game with Hayes (4.1 assists per game this season) being the biggest facilitator.
The Badgers need to rely on good ball movement to set up some opportunities in the low block, as UW has averaged 25.4 points in the paint and scored at least 30 points in the paint once over the last five games. Considering Rutgers has limited teams to shoot 32 percent from 3-point and UW ranks 13th in the Big Ten in 3-point field goal percentage (33.3 percent), attacking the rim for points and drawing fouls isn’t a half bad idea, as Rutgers allow teams to attempt 20.5 free throws a game.