Steven Branscombe/USA Today Sports

Wisconsin looks to snap a two game losing streak at Northwestern Tuesday

Before Wisconsin takes on Northwestern at Welsh-Ryan Arena Tuesday evening, Badger Nation looks at the three burning questions we're looking to have answered.

The gut-wrenching losses continue to pile up for Wisconsin.

After it appeared Wisconsin was poised to go to overtime against No. 3 Maryland, Melo Trimble had different plans and connected on the game-winning 3-pointer. For a program that doesn’t count moral victories, Wisconsin has to quickly move on and be ready for a road test at Northwestern Tuesday.

In order to prevent their first three game losing streak of the season, the Badgers are going to have to start doing the little things better: make free throws, deliver the extra pass or win the hustle plays. Those are three things Wisconsin is capable of doing but haven’t consistently shown this season. Against a scrappy Northwestern team, the Badgers have to do those little things if they expect to win, as the Wildcats are coming off a 25-point road victory against Minnesota.      

In this Badger Nation feature, we will look at the three keys or questions for Wisconsin (9-8, 1-3 Big Ten) in order to pick up a win at Northwestern (14-3, 2-2 Big Ten), which has lost five straight at home to the Badgers.

Lay up: Can Vitto Brown find his groove?

In four Big Ten games Vitto Brown has averaged only 20 minutes, scored 4.5 points and shot 34.7 percent from the field. To make things worse, for the first time this season, Brown was scoreless in his 18 minutes against Maryland, the fewest minutes he has played since the win against Temple (16 minutes).

Entering conference play as one of four UW players scoring in double figures, Brown needs to get back into a rhythm to be an asset to the offense, as his scoring average has dipped from 10.4 points a game at the start of conference play to nine. Not only is he struggling to connect with his shot, no matter where he takes it on the court, Brown isn’t attacking the glass as efficiently as he did during nonconference play. Through four Big Ten games Brown has a combined seven rebounds, surprising since he had seven games of at least seven rebounds during nonconference play.

The ineffectiveness by Brown has allowed freshman Alex Illikainen to see a jump in his minutes since head coach Greg Gard took over for Bo Ryan in mid-December. After playing a high of 11 minutes during the Ryan era, Illikainen is averaging 14.6 minutes under Gard and has logged double-digit minutes in four of the past five games. While Illikainen still makes freshman mistakes, Illikainen is averaging 3.8 points and shooting 38.8 percent over the last five games, not to mention attacks the glass and blocks out.

If Brown continues to play poorly, Illikainen, Charlie Thomas and junior Aaron Moesch could continue to take minutes away. Brown needs to find ways of moving without the ball and using screens to create room to get a good look at the rim. Wisconsin can't afford too many games where one of its starters doesn't score.

Mid-range jumper: Can Wisconsin get to the free throw line?

One of the glaring areas that has consistently appeared in the box score is missed free throws. Wisconsin ranks sixth in the Big Ten in free throw attempts (349) but is only managing to make 70.5 percent of its free throws, which ranks ninth in the Big Ten. But since Big Ten play started, Wisconsin has gone 36-for-57 (63.1 percent) from the charity stripe.

In particular, the missed points have hurt Wisconsin over the last two games in a one-point loss at Indiana (16-for-23 from the line) and the three-point loss to Maryland (5-for-11). One of the bigger problems is Wisconsin’s lack of aggressiveness at times has prevented the Badgers from even getting to the free throw line. It shouldn’t be a huge surprise that Wisconsin has been to the free throw line less in Big Ten play compared to nonconference play, but Wisconsin has averaged about eight fewer free throw attempts during Big Ten play (14.25 free throw attempts) compared to the first 13 games (22.46 attempts).

If Wisconsin is going to be able draw the fouls against Northwestern, it has to come with its frontcourt players driving to the hoop and going up strong with the ball. Of the 62 field goals attempted against Maryland, Wisconsin attempted 25 layups but could only covert 14 of those shots.

Nigel Hayes seems like the obviously person to be able to get to the free throw line and convert (90-for-124, 72.6 percent) but Zak Showalter’s aggressive style could potentially lead to more free throws, as the junior made three of his four attempted layups against the Terrapins. Showalter has attempted 27 free throw attempts this season, and went 0-for-1 against Maryland, but has shown he is capable of taking the ball strong to the hoop and creates contact when he’s given the opportunity to drive.

Northwestern averages 18.1 fouls a game and haven’t committed more than 24 fouls in a game. Wisconsin will need to be aggressive in order to reach the bonus and generate some offense against a Wildcats defense allowing 64.1 points a game.

3-pointer: Slowing Bryant McIntosh down

McIntosh has made a nice jump from his first to second season at Northwestern, upping his scoring average from 11.4 points to 15.4 points per game, which ranks 10th in the Big Ten in individual scoring. McIntosh has also seen his field goal percentage (42.1 percent to 46.5 percent) and 3-point field goal percentage (36.4 percent to 40 percent) increase from last season.

But despite his increased numbers, McIntosh has seen his shooting dip in Big Ten play to 35.1 percent (19-for-54). In three Big Ten games, McIntosh has shot 33.3 percent twice and shot 28.6 percent against Nebraska.

Even though his shot hasn’t been falling, McIntosh is still dangerous distributing the ball, as three other players for Northwestern average double figures. Wisconsin’s backcourt will need to make sure they pressure him and don’t allow him to create the space to attempt a shot or make a clean pass. McIntosh averages 7.2 assists a game, which leads the Big Ten, and made a career-high 11 assists against Minnesota, the most by a Northwestern player since Jerry Marifke had 12 against Wisconsin in February 1977.  

Showalter could get the first crack at defending McIntosh, since the junior did well of keeping Trimble in front of him at times on Saturday. Showalter will need to continue that, as allowing McIntosh to get his feet set or allow any kind of penetration will be bad news for UW’s defense.

After dealing with foul trouble throughout the season, including 18 fouls in the final four nonconference games, Showalter has become more disciplined in Big Ten play, picking up no more than three fouls in any game. He hasn’t quit being aggressive either, as Showalter has five steals over the last three games and is tied with Ethan Happ for the team lead with 21.

McIntosh leads the team in turnovers, as he’s responsible for 2.6 of the team’s 10.4 turnovers a game, and Wisconsin is averaging 14.1 points off of turnover this season. Showalter or Happ will need to find ways of creating extra offensive possessions, and Showalter frustrating McIntosh’s rhythm will be a big key in Wisconsin trying to limit different opportunities for Northwestern’s offense.


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