Nigel Hayes made it pretty clear how he felt about Wisconsin’s current three game losing streak after the most recent setback at Northwestern, referring to it as “embarrassing.” The losing streak is unchartered territory for Hayes and the rest of Wisconsin, as the Badgers are still looking for answers to some of the questions that have hurt them during their poor start to begin Big Ten play.
How Wisconsin responds when they play No. 4 Michigan State, the Badgers’ second consecutive top five opponent at home, remains to be seen. One would think Wisconsin will come out focused and ready to play, but the Spartans are coming off of a somewhat surprising 17-point home loss to Iowa. Michigan State will likely be coming to Madison just as angry as Wisconsin is.
In this Badger Nation feature, we will look at the three keys or questions for Wisconsin (9-9, 1-4 Big Ten) in order to pick up a win against Michigan State (16-2, 3-2 Big Ten).
Lay up: The play of Bronson Koenig
Like Hayes, Koenig was frustrated with how Wisconsin has been playing as of late, losing four conference games by a combined 15 points. If Wisconsin is going to right the ship, the Badgers will need Koenig - one of their more experienced players at 95 career games - to start finding a rhythm shooting the basketball. Over the first five Big Ten games, Koenig is averaging 11.6 points on 37.7 shooting from the field, including just 33.3 percent on an average of 11 field goal attempts the last three games.
Koenig hasn’t attempted many bad shots; they just simply haven’t been falling for him. His best game in the Big Ten so far has been against Rutgers, which he shot 50 percent (6-for-12) from the field. One area where Koenig has got away from is driving the basketball, as 56.6 percent of his shots in conference play are from 3-point range (making 36.6 percent of them). The game against Rutgers was the only instance where Koenig attempted more shots inside the arc opposed to 3-point range. Against Northwestern, eight of his nine field goal attempts came from three point range. Koenig’s 113 3-point attempts leads Wisconsin and is 50 more than Hayes (63 attempts).
Opposing teams have done a good job of taking driving lanes away from Wisconsin but it is a little concerning how much Koenig is relying on the 3-point shot. Although Koenig has made a three in 29 straight games, he needs to drive the ball and attack the rim against Michigan State, which could result in a layup, the ability to create space on a jump shot or get to the free throw line (he’s only attempted a free throw in two conference games).
In order for Koenig to create offensive opportunities for himself, he’ll need to be able to distribute the ball better than he did against Northwestern. Koenig registered zero assists for the first time as a starter since last season’s N.C.A.A. tournament game against Oregon.
Mid-range jumper: Can Wisconsin’s defense stop the ball screen?
Wisconsin’s backcourt has to do a better job of defending the high ball screens, something Northwestern killed the Badgers on and other teams will certainly try to exploit. The Wildcats’ offense consistently hurt Wisconsin’s defense by setting ball screens to get favorable matchups off switches, resulting in high quality shots around the rim and to free up Bryant McIntosh (28 points).
After missing the four previous games with a knee injury, Denzel Valentine has played well in his two games back and is shooting 44.8 percent from the floor. Whether or not Michigan State tries to set a high ball screen to help Valentine get to the hoop, he’s more than capable of attacking the rim due to his size or distributing to his teammates. Valentine averages 6.7 of the Spartans’ 20.7 assists a game.
After allowing Northwestern to score 30 points in the paint, Wisconsin opponents are averaging 26.6 points per game in the paint. In order to stop a Spartan offense averaging 79.1 points per game, the Badgers’ frontcourt defense needs to do a better job protecting the rim. It has become clear what Michigan State wants to do on offense - get the ball inside the paint for high percentage shots. Michigan State has scored a total of 369 points through five conference games, 182 of which has come in the paint (49.3 percent). In the last three games in the paint, Michigan State has scored 50 against Illinois, 42 against Penn State and 38 against Iowa.
Ethan Happ (20 blocks) ranks first on the team in blocks but has only registered one block in the last three games. Happ, and even Vitto Brown, will need to make the Spartans work down low. Opponents are averaging 2.9 blocks a game against a Spartan team that’s shooting 48.7 percent from the field, which ranks fourth in the Big Ten.
For UW to have a chance at a win, Wisconsin has to return to form on the glass, as the Badgers are coming off a game where they allowed Northwestern to register 11 offensive rebounds. The Spartans have registered 221 offensive rebounds (12.2 offensive rebounds a game), which ranks second behind Wisconsin, but the Spartans rank second in the Big Ten in offensive rebound percentage (37.1 percent). If Wisconsin can’t limit Michigan State to one shot per possession, it could be another long day in the post.
3-pointer: Can Wisconsin get good qualities shot off?
Wisconsin had one of its better shooting performances against Northwestern (47.1 percent) but managed only four made field goals over the last nine minutes, including two over the last 30 seconds. Those kind of long scoring droughts have hurt Wisconsin and its ability to close out games, especially against ranked competition. The Spartans have made it hard for any team not named Iowa to establish an offensive rhythm, as Michigan State ranks second in the Big Ten in scoring defense (61.9 ppg) and field goal percentage defense (36.4 percent).
Wisconsin’s offense will have to stay patient throughout and make sure they don’t allow the Spartans to dictate the pace of the game. If Wisconsin is careful, they should be able to avoid turnovers against a MSU team that forces just 9.6 per game, including only 4.4 steals. UW has committed at least 10 turnovers in two of the last three games, so a team that doesn’t force a lot of mistakes should help UW find some kind of offensive flow.
As mentioned above, UW needs to do a better job on the glass in order to beat Michigan State. After registering double-digit rebounds in every nonconference game, the Badgers have done it only once in conference. Michigan State has allowed teams to average 9.5 offensive rebounds a game this season but have seen that number jump to 12.6 since conference play started. Only Penn State and Illinois failed to register to get double digit offensive rebounds against Michigan State, but they rank 10th and 13th, respectively, in total offensive rebounds in the conference.
Wisconsin needs to find a way to convert its second-chance opportunities, an area the Badgers have also struggled in during conference play. UW has averaged 6.2 points off second chances in the last five games, a stat partly due to UW not being aggressive at the rim. Considering Michigan State is holding teams to 27.7 percent from 3-point range (first in the Big Ten), the better option seems to be attacking the paint.
Of course, the Spartans rank third in the Big Ten in blocks (5.6) and have made it tough on opponents to score inside. Through five Big Ten games, MSU is allowing 22.4 points in the paint, while Wisconsin is averaging 25.2 in that same time frame.