While the 3-4 record of interim head coach Greg Gard doesn’t stand out from a national perspective, the 77-76 victory by Wisconsin over then-No.4 Michigan State Sunday could serve as a leaping off point for the Badgers over the next two months.
While the game at Penn State won’t receive as much fanfare compared to some of UW’s more recent games, it is a game Wisconsin needs to be able to win if it wants to continue to get the season back on track. Wisconsin has posted a 4-1 record in their last five road games at State College but none have come easy. UW’s four wins have all come by single digits as the largest victory came last season by eight points.
In this Badger Nation feature, we will look at the three keys or questions for Wisconsin (10-9, 2-4 Big Ten) in order to pick up a road win against Penn State (11-8, 2-4 Big Ten).
Lay up: Striking a balance on offense
Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes both played a very efficient game against Michigan State, each scoring 25-plus points and shooting at least 50 percent from the field. But as good as those two were, the other players struggled with their shot, combining to make six field goal attempts. Ethan Happ was the only other player to make more than a field goal.
If Wisconsin wants to leave Penn State with a victory, they will need to have more of a balance amongst the players on the floor. Being able to start quickly and establish early momentum is vital against a Penn State team that allows 68.7 points a game. For Wisconsin, establish an identity on offense comes from post touches. The Badgers are only averaging 25.3 points in the paint on the season and have scored only 30-plus points seven times this season (once in Big Ten play. However, the Nittany Lions are allowing 29.3 points in the paint in Big Ten play.
Wisconsin’s frontcourt will have to find a way to beat Jordan Dickerson down low, something that can be easily done if UW plays with the same aggressiveness they did against the Spartans. Dickerson fouled out against Northwestern last tie out and registered four fouls against the Spartans two games ago. Removing the 7-1 Dickerson will soften Penn State’s interior defense, opening driving lanes or creating kick out opportunities.
Penn State is allowing teams to shoot 36.7 percent from three (45.9 in conference play), and while UW is shooting just 33.9 percent from 3-point range, the Badgers shot 42.9 percent in the win over the Spartans. If Wisconsin can run its offense, create the proper spacing and deliver effect passes, the opportunities will be there to strike a balance.
Mid-range jumper: Can Wisconsin get back on track on the glass?
Wisconsin has been spoiled over the last couple of seasons of being able to match its opponent’s interior size, but the Badgers lack of height in the middle is starting to show, making the Badgers come up short in the boards.
Through six Big Ten games, the only time Wisconsin outrebounded an opponent was against Rutgers (37-25). Since the start of Big Ten play, Wisconsin is being out rebounded by an average of 3.2 rebounds a game, dropping its overall rebounding edge to plus-5.3 a game.
Things will have a chance to change against Penn State, as the Nittany Lions are ninth in the league allowing 35.3 rebounds a game. Through the Nittany Lions’ first six conference games they have lost the rebounding battle four times by an average of 4.5 rebounds.
In order for Wisconsin to get into a rhythm and make sure the offensive flow doesn’t get disrupted, Wisconsin will have to find a way to generate second-chance opportunities. Wisconsin has only registered one game in Big Ten play with double-digit offensive rebounds but had at least seven such rebounds in the five other conference games.
If Wisconsin can find a way to box out and be the more aggressive team when they miss a shot, they should be able to generate scoring opportunities against a team that is allowing 10.8 offensive rebounds a game in the Big Ten. Four of Penn State’s first six Big Ten opponents have registered double-digit offensive rebounds, including allowing a season-high 19 offensive rebounds to Maryland.
Hayes or Happ will likely be the ones extending possessions, as the two have registered 49 and 48 offensive rebounds, respectively. As long as the Badgers box out Brandon Taylor (6.1 rebounds a game and team-best 88 defensive rebounds), Wisconsin will have a chance of improving its average of 11.6 second-chance points per game this season.
3-pointer: Force Penn State to shoot from three
Wisconsin’s interior defense has been hurt during Big Ten play, as 44.5 percent of its opponent’s points (28.6 per game) come around the rim. Three of the six teams Wisconsin has faced in conference have registered at least 30 points in the paint, including the last two opponents.
The Nittany Lions average 28 points in the paint but have seen that number dropped to only 21 points over the last four games. If Wisconsin can successfully contest shots, play aggressive defense and cut off passing lanes to the post, the Badgers will have successful defensive possession. Penn State’s biggest weakness is perimeter shooting, as the Nittany Lions are shooting 30.4 percent from three, which ranks last in the Big Ten on an average of 19.1 3-point attempts a game.
Wisconsin’s 3-point field goal defense does rank 13th in the Big Ten, allowing teams to shoot 38 percent from three, but it has been improving. Despite allowing Michigan State to shoot 44.4 percent on 18 attempts, Wisconsin held three of its first five Big Ten opponents under there three point average.
Forcing Penn State to shoot long jump shots should help UW’s rebounding, but the Nittany Lions have done a good job attacking the boards and have averaged 10.4 offensive rebounds over the last two games (UW is allowing 13 offensive rebounds game). Penn State averages 8.1 points off of second chance opportunities in the Big Ten compared to Wisconsin’s 7.3 points.
Wisconsin will need to be aware of where Shep Garner and Taylor are on the floor, as the two average the most attempts from 3-point range. Garner leads the way attempting 5.9 threes (37.2 percent) and Taylor (35.5 percent) attempts four a game. Taylor – leading the team with 16.4 points per game - is coming off his best shooting performance in Big Ten play from 3-point range after going 4-for-7 (57.1 percent) in the win over Northwestern.